When Steve Kenyon speaks to producers about pasture management, he likes to rile up the crowd. “There’s no such thing as weeds,” he said to cattle farmers gathered in the Boissevain community centre last week.
“What we call a weed is just a plant that hasn’t learned to grow in rows yet. Or we haven’t got a purpose for it yet.”
Kenyon, an Alberta beef producer, tours the country speaking about land management and grazing practices. Last week he visited Pipestone, Birtle and Boissevain.
He preaches the benefits of following four grazing concepts — short graze periods, long-enough rest periods, adequate stock density and increased animal impact on problem spots.
To illustrate his points, Kenyon showed a photo of a field he took over. The pasture, once a silage field, was now covered with Canada thistle.
Kenyon got to work, broadcasting seed over the land and letting the cattle graze the weed-riddled area, pushing the seeds into the ground with their hooves, and trampling the thistle, creating a trash cover to conserve moisture.
He encourages producers to think of weeds as scabs that are trying to heal the land when conditions are harsh. They are able to dig deep down into the toughest soils, reaching for moisture and nutrients and pulling that good stuff to the surface.
“I want it to grow and complete its cycle,” he said. Then, so long as the pasture is not overgrazed, baby grass has a chance to grow the next season.
“Favour the conditions for the desired species to outcompete the weeds.”
Canada thistle does not do well in good soil conditions, and as the grass gains strength it chokes out the weeds. If the conditions are more desirable for grass and other forage those plants will outcompete the weeds.
Some weeds, like stinging nettle, can even have positive health benefits for the animals. Stinging nettle contains multivitamins that are appealing to cattle with few minerals in their diet.
A producer from the crowd piped up, “Have you heard about leafy spurge?” The noxious weed is costing Manitoba graziers millions in lost productivity.
Kenyon seemed to anticipate the question. “Everybody always has a weed they’ll come up with,” he said. Though he has not dealt with leafy spurge, he feels confident his approach, with relevant modifications for the environment, applies to any weed problem.
He referred back to the four fundamental grazing practices, emphasizing the importance of solving the underlying problem.
“Is there a mineral imbalance? Whatever the plant is, it’s got an advantage and that’s why it’s there.”
In the past, when he has come across particularly difficult weeds, Kenyon said he bale grazed problem areas on the pasture. This increased the animal impact on the area, enriching the land by depositing nutrients from the feed.
Of course these practices don’t eliminate the weeds altogether. The plants are suppressed and the seeds are still underneath the surface waiting for the next strain on the land, like a drought.
And during that time whatever you do, according to Kenyon, don’t spray or till the land to get rid of weeds. If the county is pressuring you to address your weed problem, he recommends mowing the land.
This will leave the residue you need behind so the grass can grow. Again he likens a weed to a scab. “What happens when you rip off a scab? It bleeds.”