Take care using hay purchased from elsewhere
Many ranchers have avoided problems with noxious weeds, like leafy spurge and knapweed, through continuous range monitoring and careful ranch management. But if producers aren’t careful feeding purchased hay this winter, that could change. “I realize ranchers are trying to keep it together this year, and they are feeding whatever they can,” Aaron Berger said. “But I would advise them to take precautions when feeding hay containing noxious weeds.”
The University of Nebraska extension specialist said hay brought in from other areas can contain noxious weeds that could be introduced to native rangeland. Leafy spurge and knapweed are two examples of these weeds that many producers don’t have, Berger said. “Yet, other areas have significant amounts of it, and what happens is it ends up in a hay bale and comes to this area,” he explained.
Producers can find noxious weeds in any type of hay from meadow hay to annual forages. “This is a year when folks are baling anything they can,” the extension specialist explained. “Any area that can potentially be hayed, even those that usually aren’t, will be baled this year. CRP, areas that are normally too wet to bale up, roadside ditches, and buffer strips can all harbor noxious weeds,” he continued.
“ A lot of those areas are hayed late, because producers can’t hay them until the nesting season has passed. Often times, these plants are mature enough they have set a seed head, and may have viable seed present. They may also have seed from last year or the year before in the bales,” he added.
If producers are feeding hay they know has noxious weed seed in it, it can pass through the animal in the manure or the seed moves from being blown around. Also, if the animals use it as bedding, it can become entangled in their haircoats. “If you bring hay in from outside sources, and you don’t know what it has in it, feed it in an area you have some control over,” Berger said. “Use an area that can be cultivated, or feed it in a drylot. If possible, try to keep all the manure and hay off the range,” he added.
“Bringing in hay and feeding it on rangeland concerns me,” Berger continued. “The rangeland is already compromised this year due to the drought. The plants that are there are not very vigorous. Those noxious weed seeds would have a great opportunity to get established next spring, if we have a lot of moisture. It could contaminate our rangeland with noxious weeds.”
Noxious weeds are opportunists. If moisture is available in the soil, the noxious weeds can get a foothold to sprout and develop. “The best way to reduce weeds on rangeland is to have a vigorous, healthy population of grasses present,” Berger said. “But, cheatgrass is a great example of an opportunist. It is an introduced, invasive plant species that has become established on rangeland because it starts early and consumes all the moisture before the native grasses have an opportunity.”
“If you feed bales with cheatgrass in it on rangeland where you don’t already have it, you are providing an opportunity for it to get established,” he stated. “Manure and urine are not aggressively used by native plants because it is not part of their system. Weeds are more likely to take advantage of these nutrients to get established. Then, they also take advantage of any early moisture, and grow rapidly early in the growing season before the native grasses have an opportunity to compete,” he explained.
Berger urges producers to do what they can to prevent noxious weeds from establishing on rangeland already compromised because of the drought. “Some weed seeds can lay dormant for years before they sprout,” he said. “I would encourage producers to monitor those areas for the first couple years after they feed on it. If you notice any noxious weeds emerging, use herbicides to treat and control them, or cultivate. The challenge is to control the weeds before they can get a foothold and spread,” he added.