Some years ago, when their ranch was suffering from a western snowberry invasion, the Permans did something many folks have done. They called in aerial sprayers and blanket sprayed their pastures. What Garnet Perman says they learned is “We’re never doing that again.” Why? “We killed a lot of trees, we killed a lot of broadleaf plants and we didn’t really affect the western snowberry at all. It knocked it back a little bit but then a year or two later it was back full bore again.”
Owen, of South Dakota Game and fish, echoed Garnet’s experience. “We didn’t seem to be gaining anything. We were losing diversity and still having a weed issue. Especially in our native prairies. It didn’t really matter what kind of chemical we were spraying, you would go back the next year still have the weed problem and you’d stop seeing the prairie plants you’d see in the past.”
The problem with losing these native plants was that the loss of diversity impacted more than the wildlife that rely on them. It also caused problems for pasture health and for downstream water quality as well. While ongoing spot spraying solved some problems, the Permans were looking for something with greater impact, so they began considering adding sheep to their operation.
The Permans were interested in sheep not just for their weed eating abilities, but also for diversification of income streams. They’d considered this solution a number of times, but were concerned about fencing and predator problems. By working with a sheep provider and a herder, they were able to solve both these problems. Two months into the project, they’re continuing to learn, and are pleased with progress.
In the 7:17 video below you’ll learn more about sheep as a weed control option.
But are sheep and goats your only option?
A multi-species grazing operation provides lots of benefits, but it also brings more challenges. Beyond fencing and predators, you’ll have to manage different birthing times, new marketing, and winter grazing.
If you’re not ready for that, there is another option: spend 8 hours spread over 7 days to teach your cattle to graze your weeds.
When I look at the Perman’s weed problem I see a great example of the return on investment from taking the time to introduce your livestock to weeds.
The three problem species mentioned by the Permans – leafy spurge, snowberry/buckbrush and wormwood sage – all make great cattle forage. They’re very nutritious, (leafy spurge is the equivalent of alfalfa and the other two come in at 12% protein), and grazing them reduces their competitive advantage so you can grow more grass. This isn’t just a theory either. I’ve actually seen herds of cattle graze them successfully and have been congratulated by one rancher at the increase in grass as the weeds decreased.
I’ve covered the simple training method in articles here in On Pasture along with examples of all the different plants cattle can eat and how nutritious they are. You can get started this spring, and with a minimum of effort you’ll have a lot more forage, and a lot fewer worries.