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”.