Invasive and noxious weeds have been known to disrupt soil nutrient and water distribution, affecting native grasses and plant populations as well as being detrimental to the pocketbooks of farmers and ranchers who experience production losses as a result of their presence.
In an effort to help educate producers about the effects of these weeds and help to eradicate them, the Upper Dakota Resource Conservation and Development Council, one of eight regional councils of the North Dakota Resource Conservation and Development Association, recently obtained a second round of funding to help combat the prevalence of these weeds on grazing land in Bottineau, Burke, McHenry, Mountrail, Pierce, Renville and Ward counties.
The first of its kind to deal specifically with invasive and noxious weeds in the state, the North Dakota Invasive Species Partnership Project was launched in 2007 as part of a three-year grant provided by the Grazing Land Conservation Initiative that provides a 50 percent cost-share to farmers and other conservation groups who engage in applied invasive weed control practices or conduct noxious weed educational activities in their community.
Mark Crosby, district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Bowbells, kneels in a field as he discusses invasive weed management during a plant identification session at the 2007 Summer Tri-County Grazing Tour.
During the first two years of the program, seven projects were carried out, spanning from grazing workshops and equipment leasing arrangements to invasive weed field guides, impacting more than 200 people throughout the region. When the $10,000 was expended, the Upper Dakota RC&D requested and received an additional $10,000 from the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative.
Now, with eight months until the grant officially ends, the non-profit organization is looking for interested producers and organizations who want to reduce weed populations on their land or raise awareness in their local community about the effect these weeds have on the land and agricultural industry.
Interested individuals must fill out a one-page application form on the NRCS Web site detailing their project proposal and budget. Partnering with local Soil Conservation Districts and County Weed Control Boards, "We will work with them to discuss the program and how we might help them accomplish their projects,"said Allan Pfliger, RC&D coordinator for the Upper Dakota office. "We just want to help people improve their community."
Once received, applications are discussed among the RC&D board members at their monthly meeting and, "So far, we haven't turned anyone down and have funded every one," he said. Eligible projects can range from applied control practices using biological and herbicide controls to educational seminars and the distribution of informational leaflets.
This program, "Is extremely important from the standpoint of management change on grazing land with many older ranchers retiring," Pfliger said, adding that, "many are not fully aware of how big a problem these noxious and invasive weeds can be and anytime you have an (educational) tool, it's always a positive."
The Plants Database of the USDA lists 15 noxious weed species that affect the 1.28 million acres of pasture and grazing land in North Dakota, according to the last agricultural census, conducted in 2002. Of those 15 state-listed species, 12 are found in Ward County and two additional species not found on the state list are included in the county list, bringing the total to 14 species to affect the roughly 26,800 acres of grazing land in the county.
Derrill Fick, weed control officer for the Ward County Weed Control Board, said of the 14 species listed, Canada thistle and leafy spurge are the most prevalent, affecting roughly 7,000 acres combined.
Canada thistle, characterized by cotton-ball like purplish to whitish flowers, grow under most conditions and can reach 4 feet in height. Their root systems are interconnected and can reach 8 feet deep and 20 feet laterally, making them very hard to eradicate. The deep root system also allows the weed to steal nutrients and water from other native grasses and plants, stunting their growth. A perennial plant, leafy spurge is a bluish-green plant that emerges in early spring and produces yellow flower bracts and toxic milky sap. Like the Canada thistle, leafy spurge is hard to eradicate once established because of its extensive root system, which can reach depths of 20 feet into the ground, and its ballistic seed dispersal ability, which can disperse seed pods more than 20 feet away, enabling it to spread quickly.
Once invasive weeds are established, they are often difficult and costly to eradicate. Fick said using chemicals to control these weeds can run producers $40 an acre and it often takes three years or more before native plants are able to re-establish themselves.
For livestock producers, the most dangerous weed in the area is the hounds tongue, Fick said, because it produces toxins that, if eaten by livestock, causes liver failure, resulting in death over a six-month time period.
The plant, which was first documented in the 1940s, grows in shady, moist soils and emerges in the summer and can grow up to 7 feet tall. Named for the shape of the velvet leaves, hounds tongue has small purple flowers and quarter-inch burrs that attach to the hair of any animal that passes by.
"These animals are not naturally attracted to the plant, but if a pasture is not managed effectively, they will be forced to graze on it," Fick said, adding that the weed would have to constitute 10 to 15 percent of an animal's diet for the toxins to take effect.
Although there are no current figures detailing the production loss to livestock producers caused by invasive and noxious weeds, Fick said, he does know of a farmer in Mountrail County who had to have more than 100 acres sprayed with control chemicals after several of his cattle died suddenly in the wintertime. An autopsy later revealed that the animals had ingested the hounds tongue during summer grazing and died slowly as their livers disintegrated.
"Many are just starting to realize the effects of these weeds on their livestock," Fick added. "Farmers and ranchers need to be diligent and watch the weeds on their land and control them. Any invasive plant can fester for years, then spring up all of a sudden and take over with an explosion of seed production, which allows it to spread fast."