Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Battling Weeds

Battling Weeds

Just think of a ranch as a big garden—a very big garden. Hundreds of acres of land all requiring watering and weeding. Now after some of the driest spring months you can imagine, we just had one of the wettest 4th of July weekends on record and the cowboys riding bulls at the local rodeo were getting bucked off in the mud. All this rain makes it a little difficult to get the haying done, but we are happy for the moisture. The foothills are a shade of green that we have not seen for a few years and it sure makes us smile.

By this time last year we were already seeing fire crews make their way to Montana. Last summer a total of 12,000 firefighters fought fires around the state. If all those people had been living in one place, it would have made the 8th largest city in the state of Montana.

The dry seasons seem to have given an advantage to the weeds. The war on weeds consumes our energy and a big chunk of our pocketbook. Left unmanaged, invasive weeds negatively impact agriculture, wildlife and recreation. Weeds can reduce grass production by up to 90%. In Montana there were only a few spotted knapweed plants not long ago and today more than 5 million acres are infested. The noxious weed list contains more than 100 species.

Leafy spurge has invaded the Boulder River Valley and we are using everything in the toolbox to lower weed populations and that includes herbicides, bio-agents and sheep grazing. Our sheep are “spurge vacuums.” Can’t believe what they can do to a spurge patch in one day. After 4 days in the 40 acre river pasture, there was not a seed head to be found. It is a joy when something far exceeds your expectations. And the sheep are doing it time and again as we move them from field to field. Sometimes they say that sheep need to become accustomed to eating this noxious weed—that it takes a while to get used to eating it. But ours eat it with gusto.

The sheep are some of our favorite animals…they provide food and fiber and they also lower our cost of production because of the fabulously efficient way they control noxious weeds. The are the only animal that eats spurge and they eat it with gusto. They turn a horrible enemy of the West into the delicacy of lamb chops.

Pretty amazing story.