Weeds . . . Under-appreciated Friends
by Paul Rohrbaugh
The summer of 2001 is one
that will not be soon forgotten by graziers in Southeast Nebraska.
We transitioned from the extremely dry summer and fall of 2000 into a
relatively wet winter. Then we transitioned from our wet winter to a dry spring,
followed by a wet June and July, followed by our traditionally hot and dry
August. From a grazing
point of view, most of us were either too early or too late, too grazing
intensive or not intensive enough.
In spite of these grazing challenges, it has been a great year; plenty of
feed, plenty of water, and plenty of hay and stockpiled grass for the winter. However, these conditions and our grazing responses produced
an abundance of weeds! As I
surveyed these weeds, just a couple of weeks before my farm tour, I pondered
about what to say about the weeds. In
the past couple of years I have gained a new appreciation for weeds.
NSAS Board Director Bob Baum informed me that weeds are “healers”.
During the 2001 Healthy Farms Conference, NSAS Board Director Dennis
Demmel presented to us that weeds are “teachers”.
Numerous grazing speakers have pointed out that a weedy paddock often
enhances animal health through the nutrients brought up to the plant from
roots functioning at a different depth than the prevailing grasses.
It is the weeds, rather than the failed grass planting, that are
protecting the soil from erosion on my recently completed watershed dam.
It is the weeds that will provide food and shelter for the wildlife
that I may not have made adequate provision for.
Weeds will enrich my soil with organic matter and add to the soil
structure through its non-typical root system on my grasslands.
In short, weeds may enrich, enhance and add resilience to a system in
which my best efforts often fall short of nature’s plan.
How do we respond to these
often times embarrassing weeds? First,
I think that we need to value them for all of the contributions previously
stated. Then we need to let them
teach us. They may tell us to
graze lighter or more intensely. They
may tell us that the grassland needs more rest.
They may plead with us to add more diversity to our system; i.e.
multi-species grazing, biological controls, or even fire (common in the
pre-settled prairie environment). They
might just be saying “lay off and let me do my thing”.
So then, when asked about what I plan to do with the weeds in my pastures I will say, “I am doing the best I can with what I know. I will let the weeds teach me new and site specific lessons, and I will let them perform their purposes of healing, protection, fertility, and nutrition”.