|Spotted Knapweed No Match for Wooly Weed Eaters in Montana
By BECKY TALLEY
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(November 1, 2007) For sheep, nothing can be better than to graze all day. For a rancher, nothing can be better than getting paid to feed your animals. And, thanks to some non-native invasive weeds, both the animal and the producer can have these advantages.
It is well known that sheep are a triple threat when it comes to production: meat, wool and milk. But their value does not end there, and they are garnering praise for their work in the environmental realm, and all simply because they have to eat.
Prescribed grazing is nothing new, but it is taking hold in many areas across the country because of sheep’s effectiveness to control many species of non-native invasive weeds. They present an ecologically sound alternative to spraying for these weeds and are being recognized by the governmental, environmental, ranching and even urban communities as a valuable tool for weed control.
This is evident in Montana, where several of these types of groups have come together to control one of the largest flora scourges in the West, spotted knapweed, in a unique grazing project.
The Madison River Grazing Pilot Project is a collaboration between the Montana Sheep Institute (MSI), Madison Valley Ranchlands Group (MVRG) Weed Committee, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
MSI is a cooperative project between Montana State University and the Montana Wool Growers Association formed to improve the sheep industry, explore opportunities to increase sheep use in weed management and improve competitiveness of Montana sheep producers.
The institute does all this by focusing on using sheep grazing as a tool for natural resource management, which drew the attention of the other collaborators in the project, such as the MVRG.
The MVRG is a nonprofit organization focused on promoting and preserving the agriculture way of life. Part of its mission is to help landowners manage weeds and educate them about the different tools they have at their disposal, which led them to become involved with this grazing project.
According to Melissa Griffiths, MVRG weed coordinator, prescribed sheep grazing has become an appealing option for weed control for several reasons. It is less chemically intensive, which appeals to those in agriculture who are going toward more natural or organic practices, those that are not involved in agriculture appreciate the non-chemical approach and it is a effective control method, as many people realize that chemicals are not the end-all be-all of control methods.
“Sheep are such a great tool,” she relates.
According to Griffiths, spotted knapweed has infested many acres in the Madison Valley area, and the weed is especially concentrated and persistent on the banks of the river. However, because of water contamination issues, use of chemicals in this area is not always the best control method. Therefore, a viable option for weed control was needed, and sheep fit the bill.
Beginning in 2004, the project was designed to graze sheep on an eight-mile stretch of the Madison River in Montana. The land is owned by the BLM, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Service and private land owned by approximately 29 different landowners, according to Lisa Surber, Ph.D., research scientist, at MSI.
According to data from MSI, at the beginning of the project, one of the monitored sites produced 620 pounds of dry matter forage per acre, a majority of which was knapweed. In fact, of that 620 pounds, 67 percent (414 pounds) was knapweed.
According to Rodney Kott, Ph.D., Montana extension sheep specialist, when non-native invasive species are present, such as spotted knapweed, they end up choking out forbs, a main forage for wildlife, first. Eventually, as had happened along the Madison River, the weed will become the dominant plant in the area.
“That’s the scary issue of these non-native invasive plants. They basically capture the landscape and take over,” he relates, adding the spotted knapweed is particularly a prolific producer, as its seeds will remain viable for many years.
For this project, one band of sheep, owned by Montana sheep producer Riley Wilson, was brought in to graze, and the site has been closely monitored for progress over the past three years. The band is accompanied by one herder, Tony, who both Surber and Griffiths say has been instrumental in helping landowners and others understand the project, which has been a key to its success.
“Ninety-nine percent of the owners understand the overall goals and they appreciate the nonchemical control of the weeds,” Surber says.
The results of the prescribed grazing project have been astounding. In 2007, spotted knapweed was definitely losing its hold on the site. Though 2007 was a dry summer, of the 392 pounds per acre of production, 248 pounds was grass (63 percent), 113 pounds was forbs (29 percent) and only 31 pounds was knapweed (8 percent).
“What we’ve found is that we can actually increase viability of that land for wildlife,” says Kott.
What is just as important as the results of the project is that it has all been backed by hard data from monitoring, which can be used by anyone who is looking for weed management information. The project and monitoring is scheduled to continue for at least one more year.
“We come away from this project with a package. It gives weed managers good hard data to work with,” says Griffiths. “It’s not just our opinion (that knapweed is controlled with grazing), it’s fact.”
In addition, Griffiths says that the project has for the most part been well received by local landowners and has given her a chance to educate the general public about weed control and sheep grazing.
The grazed stretch of the river is often used by recreationalists, and Griffiths says that she has gotten queries from fisherman on the river about the sheep and what they are doing.
“It’s a great project, and I can’t say enough about the sheep institute,” Griffith says.
This project is just one of 22 prescribed grazing projects the sheep institute is monitoring for non-native invasive plant management. In all, they are monitoring 31 sheep producers, 30,000 head of sheep, 1,000 landowners and 100,000 acres of grazing projects throughout Montana.
And the data from these projects is consistently showing one major theme.
“We can do as good a job with sheep as we do with chemicals,” Kott relates.