Very slowly, for some native pastures, the invasive grass known as “Old World Bluestem” is slyly overtaking areas in Kansas and Nebraska, and even south into Oklahoma and Texas.
Along with this discovery, some farmers and ranchers in Kansas say they’ve observed the troubling pale-yellow grass growing like a weed — while nervously witnessing disgruntled cattle retreat from feeding in these pastures.
It’s especially apparent when cattle won’t eat it.
It typically grows three-feet tall.
Gordon and Janet Morrison of Concordia, Kan. — about a half-hour from the Nebraska border — told The Fence Post they are distressed to spot Old World Bluestem within a few miles of their ranch, which is now manifesting into a field of bad dreams.
“Our neighbor — Harry Riley’s son, Daniel— was baling a roadside back in September, and thought it looked different. He found it (Old World Bluestem) right here in Cloud County,” said Gordon Morrison, a former agronomy and chemistry instructor at Cloud County Community College in Concordia for 21 years. “And, that got the three of us started — Harry, another neighbor-rancher, Jim Franey, and me — and we contacted the (Kansas State University’s) River Valley Extension District. Robin Reid, an extension agent, came out and gave a positive identification.”
“Not much has been said about this, but we need to get the word out,” Morrison continued. “Right now pastures here are worth $2,000 an acre, but if it’s like this ... they will only be worth half that. It would then affect the tax base and valuation would be affected dramatically. Also, instead of six acres per cow and calf, it might have to be 12 acres per cow and calf. So, we’re saying that people who lease this land need to know about it,” Morrison declared.
Janet is equally concerned and supportive.
“That would affect what the ranchers have to spend,” she added.
A few pastures which Reid examined near Concordia were nearly 50 percent consumed by Old World Bluestem.
“Although most pastures don’t have it, if you don’t catch it right away it can become a real problem,” Reid said. “I’ve seen it in roadside ditches and pastures in parts of each of our district counties including Washington County, Republic, Clay and Cloud counties,” Reid said.
The biggest questions are: how did Old World Bluestem magnify through some pastures, and what is the recommended method of eradicating it.
After confirming that Old World Bluestem is growing in those pastures, Reid and other Extension agents at the Kansas State University River Valley District quickly set up a community-wide dinner meeting Dec. 5 at the city hall in Miltonvale, Kan. About 60 farmers and ranchers, including the Morrisons, attended the informational presentation on the issue.
Another agriculture expert who participated at the Miltonvale seminar, noted that, while Bluestem is just coming to light to the public now, it has been both intentionally and unintentionally planted over the last 70 years.
“Although we don’t have the records, I believe there were several crop fields intentionally planted to OWB (Old World Bluestem) in the 40s and 50s — some through the old Conservation Reserve (Program). Other fields have been inadvertently planted from seed left in a grass drill box, seed blowing into the field from adjacent plantings, such as highway right-of-ways, and seed transported into a field on vehicles or in hay bales,” said Dwayne Rice, rangeland management specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lincoln, Kan. “When farmers planted it in the Conservation Reserve back in the 40s and 50s, some of those guys wanted to plant it, while others wanted to just mix the OWB in with native grass. However, I think some fields were inadvertently seeded with OWB simply because the seed drills weren’t cleaned out.”
Regarding whether it’s spread by birds or animals, Rice attributed it more to the wind blowing it, or some OWB seed left in an equipment radiator, or in mud.
“OWB spreads primarily from seed,” Rice noted. “It is a prolific seed producer, and the seed is easily blown by the prevailing winds which can spread the seed 20 to 40 feet from the source. The source could be roadside planting from the highway department, or a neighbor’s field. But, you can see the spread — typically from the southwest, although sometimes from the northwest, and it’s obvious that it’s windblown. People can also spread the seed by harvesting and moving hay from areas infested with OWB. If the plants have set seed, and the bales are moved to a different area, then the new area can be at risk of being invaded by OWB.
“It’s a perennial bunch grass so it’s not spread by the roots, but rather by the seed,” said Rice, adding that it’s important to be able to identify it.
He pointed out that OWB is showing up in areas across Kansas.
“It certainly grows well, from WaKeeney to Junction City (Kan.) and actually from Nebraska to Oklahoma. I know of fields (affected) in the Tallgrass prairie east of Wichita, Fort Riley near Junction City, and in some fields north of Manhattan (Kan.) in Pottawattamie and Washington Counties in northern Kansas,” he added.
As far as questions about alfalfa, Rice relieved any potential fears about OWB establishing or sustaining itself in a crop field.
“I don’t think it’ll survive in a crop field,” he noted. “You’ve got all the agronomic practices like the tillage and herbicide spraying (glyphosate) that will kill the OWB. However, it can establish and maintain itself in and along waterways and field borders though.”
Old World Bluestem responds well to nitrogen, and establishes easily on eroded or disturbed areas such as along road banks.
“So when you start looking at where it’s planted, it starts to make sense why it’s showing up there,” Rice said. “OWB has been here a long time, but producers haven’t necessarily recognized it. After the last few years of dry weather, and factoring in a little overgrazing especially in the western side of the state, I think people are now becoming more aware that it’s in their pastures, or at least in their neighbors’ pastures.”
Silver Bluestem is a close relative to Old World Bluestem, but is native to Kansas. Meanwhile, Old World Bluestem was originally intended to be planted as a forage crop, but when it started invading native grasses, it became a problem.
“It can take over the native species,” Reid. “It grows in spring and it’s okay for cattle to eat it. The quality as far as protein and energy is fine, but the ability for cattle to want to consume it, is really low; once it gets to a certain maturity level. It’s not near as palatable to cattle as native grasses. They don’t like to eat it.”
So, when livestock gravitate to and graze only the native species, this allows the Old World Bluestem to out-compete the native species.
As Morrison put it, “The good seed had some bad seedlings in it.”
The biggest concern, Rice said, is control and how to deal with it once it’s in a pasture.
“So, what are they doing to get rid of it in our pasturelands?” Morrison queried. “It spreads by the blowing of wind, and these need to be declared noxious weeds,” he said.
However, there’s too much of it, to be considered a noxious weed, according to Rice, and Scott Marsh, state weeds specialist for the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Reid said, the first step is being able to identify it.
“If you think you have it, bring a sample into an RVED or an NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) office, and they’ll identify it for you,” recommended Reid. “If it’s confirmed, the sooner you treat it, the less it will spread. If you have grass that’s 3-foot tall but cattle won’t eat it, it may be Old World Bluestem. Contact our office, or cut some and bring it to one of our district offices.”
Those attending the seminar agreed it’s important, for the future purchasing of any seed, to have steps in place to be sure that there’s no OWB in the seed mix. They also agreed, the next step is taking their concerns to Kansas State legislators, so the full Legislature could vote on it.
As far as some hope for ridding fields of OWB, Rice had some encouraging news.
“Because of the interest in control, we’re going to continue to see more research. Keith Harmony, a Kansas State University researcher in Hays, Kan., and Karen Hickman, professor with the Oklahoma State University Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management as well as Walt Fick, KSU state rangeland specialist, are researching ways to control it,” offered Rice.
Right now, the recommended methods for getting rid of OWB, are mowing or burning prior to diligent applications of glyphosate.
“If you burn the whole pasture, and then early intensively graze it until the end of June, the native grass should be fairly short in the three to four inch range,” Rice explained. “But the OWB should be taller; 6 to 10 inches tall by then. That makes the OWB susceptible to applying the glyphosate with a wick, instead of a sprayer. Anything that we do to OWB will be a long-term effort, because the seed seems to remain viable for several years. Just killing the established plants — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve gotten rid of your problem.”
For example, Rice cited a field of OWB a farmer wanted to convert from OWB to native grasses. The farmer sprayed the field with glyphosate, and tilled and planted it to annual crops for several years. However, once the field was seeded to native grass, the OWB re-established itself from remnant seed — remaining in the soil faster than the native grasses.
By the end of the first growing season, the OWB was about 50 percent of the grass stand.
By the end of the second growing season, the OWB had increased to about 70 percent of the grass stand — it was as if nothing had happened.
Two years of conventional tillage and annual crops wasn’t long enough to wear out the viable OWB seed in the soil seedbank.
“According to a recent research study conducted by Karen and Keith, you can get better control of the OWB if you mow or burn first to remove the old, standing residue, and then apply the glyphosate,” noted Rice. “If you burn it annually and couple that with the glyphosate, you should start to see some control.”
The Morrisons feel strongly about getting the word out to make others aware and find a way to battle the Old World Bluestem issue.
“There’s no magic bullet,” acknowledged Morrison. “Our mission is to make people aware and start educating farmers and ranchers on what they can do to correct it.” ❖