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Grazing for Weed Management

By   /  January 4, 2021  /  4 Comments

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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.

Grazing Weeds Gives You 43% More Forage

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.

Click to fill out a survey to guide On Pasture's futureKnowing that, why don’t you do it? And why don’t you tell everybody about it? Let me know in the comments below.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.


  1. Jim Ruen says:

    Some 40 years ago I interviewed a farmer in the Red River Valley. A neighboring quarter section had been overrun with kocia. With no good way at the time to control it, the owner put it up for sale. My interviewee bought it at a big discount to surrounding farmland. He pastured it heavily with sheep and after a couple of years, the kocia were gone and his land was back in crops.

  2. Kais Khelif says:

    Not until you confine the sheep and goats in the area where the weeds are, they are not going to eat it and leave nice lush grass all around them from my experience.
    It is like giving a Human a choice between a Ribeye Steak and a regular sandwich.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hi Kais,
      Thanks for your comment because it gives me an opportunity to explain something that most people don’t know.

      Weeds are very nutritious. So, it’s not like the choice between a ribeye steak and a regualr sandwich, unless you know that the weed is actually the ribeye steak.

      The reason animals don’t eat many weeds is that they don’t know they are food. Three decades of research have demonstrated that animals learn what to eat, first from their mothers, and then from their herd mates. So if no one they know eats a particular plant, they are unlikely to try it themselves.

      They also choose based on the nutritional feedback they get from foods. So, when I introduce animals to weeds through my simple training process, they experience the ribeye steak nutritional value of the weed. Then they begin to look for that weed in pasture, and they graze it readily. The benefit of the 8 hours of training is that it opens animals’ minds to the idea that food could be more than just what they learned from their mothers. They begin to try everything in the pasture, and mix a diet of everything they find. They also teach their herd mates, so, in large herds in the west (600 or so animals), I train 50 and let them do the rest of the work for me. It’s very efficient and effective.

      I developed this training method specifically so ranchers in the west, who work on very large landscapes, would be able to manage weeds without fencing. But it works anywhere and with any animal. I’ve trained over 1,000 cattle, several flocks of sheep, my own herd of 150 goats, and some of Ted Turner’s bison. So I’ve seen this in action.

      I provide a “training recipe” and a continuously growing list of edible plants in the Bonus Content section. Paid subscribers can download them for free and get going this spring.

      I hope that helps! You can read more here if you like: https://onpasture.com/2020/03/23/how-to-teach-cows-to-eat-weeds-in-just-8-hours-over-7-days/


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