On a Thursday evening in September, I joined 20 neighbors, local farmers, landowners, for a pasture walk led by Buncombe Co. Cooperative Extension on SAHC’s 100+ acre community farm in Alexander, NC. Meghan Baker, Ethan Henderson, and Noah Henson took us all on an informative stroll to discuss management strategies and how to keep pastures healthy and productive.
I joined the group as a new Intern with SAHC. It was an exciting foray into the world of local agriculture. As a student of Ecology, I spend a lot of time learning about and managing exotic invasive plants in forests, so it was fascinating to gain a new perspective. I learned that pasture land is an ecosystem in itself, and with the right management strategies, they can be productive, beneficial, and botanically diverse.
What is a Weed?
Workshop leaders focused on plant identification and discussing the benefits and pitfalls of having specific plants colonize pasture land. The class begins by laying out a definition for “weed,” which can differ depending on your point of view.
“For me, a pasture weed is anything my livestock won’t eat,” says Ethan, Livestock and Forages Extension Agent for Haywood County.
With that, we made our way to our first plant. It is about a foot high with sharp spiny alternately branched leaves. It has plump berries that begin green and ripen to yellow; this plant is horse nettle. It has toxic fruit that can be troublesome in hay and the thorned leaves are unpalatable to livestock. It is a perennial weed and an aggressive spreader that should be removed before going to seed.
“Perennial weeds are important to try and get a hold of because they come back year after year,” says Meghan Baker Agricultural Extension Agent for Buncombe County.
According to Meghan, the kind of weeds present can indicate characteristics of soil and hint at ways you can work to improve soil quality. For example, Broadleaf plantain is associated with compacted soil and tells you that heavy animal presence, foot traffic, and equipment use is occurring. If this plant starts showing up in abundance, you know it is time to rotate off that soil and let it repair. Areas of high use like fence lines have soil that can become quickly compacted. Compacted soil is inviting to many of the most undesirable weeds, so rotating use is an essential strategy.
Fence Line Issues
Fence lines are problem areas because they quickly become compacted by grazing animals and are difficult to mow and maintain. Japanese honeysuckle is a plant to watch out for, it can weigh down and cause fence damage, but can be easily managed with goats.
“The most problematic pasture plant with the most livestock deaths in our area is Black Cherry,” informed Ethan.
Black cherry spreads prolifically as birds eat the berries and spread it along a fence row. Its wilted leaves are very toxic, but its sweet almond smell makes it attractive to animals that will typically instinctively avoid other poisonous plants. It is best to cut this plant when you see it and paint the stumps with herbicide so it will not resprout. If left unmanaged, it can tear a fence down in addition to poisoning animals.
Another troublesome fenceline colonizer is multiflora rose, originally intentionally planted in the 30s and 40s as a living fence on many farms it is now an exotic invasive nightmare. Goats are a useful management tool, as it has a massive root system that is difficult to control mechanically. It has tasty berries that birds will spread profusely and sends out suckers so it can colonize quickly, so it is best to get ahead of this plant as soon as you encounter it.
Management – When to cut
Managing undesirable weeds has a lot to do with choosing the right time to cut. Cutting pasture at the wrong time can spread weed seeds around your pasture.
“Some seeds like Jimson weed can stay viable in the soil for up to thirty years!” Ethan emphasized.
These experts suggest letting cool-season grasses that emerge in the spring to grow tall and hopefully shade out some of the weedier colonizers. Try cutting pasture towards the end of May, leaving it a touch taller to leave a canopy to avoid weed takeover in the summer. Second cut hay that occurs later in the summer can be bad for weed seeds and low in nutrients.
“The more plants mature, the lower the quality of that plant, you’re going to get more yield but ultimately lower quality,” says Noah Henson Livestock, Dairy, Equine, and Forages Agent for Buncombe County.
When buying hay, they recommend asking about the grower’s management strategy — for example, does the grower test for hay nutrients? If so, that’s a good indicator that they are paying attention and taking good care of the land. If a pasture is well managed, then hay should be high in nutrients.
Not all wild weedy plants are undesirable — native wildflowers like goldenrod, ironweed, wingstem, and joe-pye weed are excellent for pollinators.
“Goldenrod is a great carbohydrate-heavy, prolific bloomer in the fall,” related Meghan. Cows and horses may not be interested in it, but the pollinator benefits make having this plant around worthwhile. It can on occasion spread aggressively, but Meghan says this would indicate it is time to rotate animals and focus on soil fertility.
However, not all beneficial pollinator plants are ideal in pasture scenarios; milkweed, the sole host plant of the monarch butterfly, can be problematic in a pasture scenario. It is toxic to animals, even as hay. It is best to keep it out of the pasture but a great plant to have on other non-grazing areas of the property.
Long-term Management – Breaking the Seed Cycle
Workshop leaders explained that dealing with weeds is about breaking the seed cycle. The first step is to check fertility and pH to encourage desirable plants. It may take a few years to break the cycle, but it is vital for long term pasture health.
Soil samples can be sent into your local extension, which will give recommendations on what amendments to apply, and agents will sit with you and go over your analysis. Soil nutrients are often recommended especially nitrogen. These experts recommend splitting fertilizers into two applications, half in the spring and half in the fall to be most effective.
They also recommend clover; as a nitrogen-fixing plant it can reduce or remove the need for nitrogen. For this Noah advises frost seeding – when the soil thaws seeds are pulled down and come springtime you will see a substantial increase in clover population. Clover is also high in protein, so it makes for good grazing food. Hilariously, it can give horses “the slobbers,” which the Extension office gets frequent, panicked calls about every year. Not to worry though; it may look gross, but it won’t harm them.
Overall, I learned that being a good steward of pasture land requires patience, forethought, and attention to detail. Weed management is a never-ending effort because even if we are good managers, weed seeds always blow in.
“We will always be managing them, never eradicating,” explains Meghan. “That’s the nature of invasives because they will always out-compete natives. All we can do is work on managing them and keep populations as low as possible.”
Being a steward of natural spaces, whether it’s agricultural fields or forest ecosystems can feel like a game of whack-a-mole, with new challenges at every turn. At the end of the day, it is worth it knowing you are protecting beautiful and precious ecosystems for every human and creature to enjoy.
Intern Perspective: Miranda Murray
Miranda Murray joins SAHC as an intern this fall. She is a senior at UNCA studying Ecology and Environmental Biology. She grew up in Southern Florida amongst unique ecosystems like Cypress swamps and Sawgrass marshes which instilled in her a deep reverence and fascination with the natural world. She has an affinity for all things plants and hopes to pursue a career as a Plant Ecologist. Her work experience includes invasive plant management, water quality monitoring, and environmental education. In her free time she enjoys hiking with her two dogs, community herbalism, and darkroom photography.