Invasive plants are on the horizon for farmers and ranchers in the Great Plains, according to several new studies, including a study out of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“Things are hitting the fan in terms of environmental changes and their impacts on native plants,” said Professor Timothy Seastedt of CU-Boulder’s ecology and evolutionary biology department also a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “A number of invasive plant species have become better adapted for some of these altered Great Plains ecosystems than dominant native species.”
Invasive species adapt quickly.According to a US Department of Agriculture researcher Dana Blumenthal, invasive species are likely to do well because they handle change well. The particularly harmful Dalmatian Toadflax is encroaching on grasslands in 32 U.S. states. During an experiment performed by Blumenthal to test the viability of toadflax under simulated warmer than normal conditions and higher CO2 levels that the Great Plains may see in the future, toadflax flourishes.
Cattle ranchers have a lot of weeds to worry about, given that some of these weeds are quite poisonous or unpalatable to cattle. Ellen Nelson is one of the ranchers tackling these weeds. She’s working on convinced some of her steers that toadflax is an homage to fine-dining out-on-the-range. As a rancher, she has learned that you have to teach them about a new plant. It’s still pretty hard to get them to eat it, even though she’s gotten some of them to eat some.
Teaching a dog new tricks might be the stuff of child’s play, but many still continue to make attempts until they feel like they’re banging their heads up against the wall and realizing the exercise in futility. Teaching cattle to eat new weeds might be a tough job. It’s an ongoing and, at times, losing battle.
Ellen Nelson has raised awareness about the issue. An entire hillside of her small ranch near Bellvue, Colorado turns bright yellow every summer filled with the toadflax weed. She raises grass-fed beef. The toadflax crowds out the weed that the cattle usually eat. She’s been forced to turn to an expensive herbicide that has already cost her thousands of dollars, after pulling the weed by hand became impossible, since the weed’s roots grow deep and regenerate quickly. Overall, all the methods that she’s used, including hundreds of weevils, are helping marginally. The weed is winning.
This year, she plans to try the herbicide, introduce burrowing bugs, and continue to teach her steers to embrace the regenerating buffet. She considers that they might learn how to live with the weeds.
That might be right since toadflax lacks any natural predators and diseases. Still, there’s always hope and I’m rooting for her and hoping that the biocontrol technology insect releases end up working for her.
Sources: Scientific American, Harvest Public Media, Go Green Nation, Point Blue, e! Science News, The Gazette