Oh, Those Tumbling Tumbleweeds! | TheFencePost.com
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Oh, Those Tumbling Tumbleweeds!

Dub the subject with whatever weedy words suit your vocabulary: desiccated Russian thistle; rolling orbs of dangerous wildwood kindling; or, with a nostalgic tip of the cowboy hat to Gene Autry’s popular 1935 song, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

Anyone who resides in a Western state where the wind blows and the ground comes alive with hordes of the burly pest weed knows to watch out when it’s on the prowl.

Tumbleweed season generally begins around November when the annual plant dies off, dries up, and detaches from its stem. Extremely dry years might give the calendar an earlier nudge. Regardless, most informed people regard large invasions a nightmarish re-run of scenes from the 1930s Dust Bowl era.



Some plant species that humans consider pests actually aren’t; many are downright beneficial. Dandelions, for example, provide a cheerful touch of gold self-sown into generally useless lawn grasses. Imported by British settlers as reminders of home, the leaves, especially early in the season, serve as a nutritious salad ingredient or teas.

A powerhouse plant, dandelions’ high Vitamin C dosage is greater than that found in oranges and other fruits/vegetables touted as healthy.



Russian thistle, which becomes tumbleweed when dried out, joins up with other weeds beside this iron fence bordering an old, unattended northern Colorado cemetery. Photo by Marty Metzger

Poor, unappreciated Esq. Dan D. Lions are free for the taking, nearly indestructible, and just begging to keep their human neighbors strong and happy. Oh yeah, they make great wine, too!

Severe droughts effortlessly wipe out sought-out profitable species such as corn and wheat. What once were called “Victory” Gardens droop and wilt into “Defeat” Gardens, or are chomped to bits by vegan monsters like tomato hornworms.

“Spray away!” the tubular green caterpillars seem to taunt, licking their little buggy lips.

But back in the abandoned field over there, where no one cares, trampled dandelions raise their vitamin-laden leaves toward the sun, whispering, “I can make you well!”

TUMBLEWEEDS’ BENEFITS?

Could Russian thistle offer some yet-unknown purposes? Maybe so, maybe not, but…

Especially on the prairie, impending doom looms. A chain of events that spoil the Gene Autry song’s reputation is coming. Tumbling tumbleweeds are on the move, wreaking havoc as they toss and turn their way ever-forward until halted by fence lines, structures or irrigation ditches. They hunt for ways to cause a blaze! They’re not sexy; they’re unwanted; they are ubiquitous.

Cattle eagerly eat tumbleweed, thus thinning out the whirling weed herds. But bovine herds? Drought and record high temperatures have caused growing numbers of ranchers to give up on their beef- producing lifestyle. After all, climate-compromised grazing land threatens the livelihoods of cattle ranchers, not of tumbleweed farmers!

As more and more discouraged livestock producers downsize or disperse herds, fewer and fewer hungry cattle remain to keep tumbleweed in check. When acreage is subsequently sold off to land speculators, it frequently lays fallow until sold; Russian thistle, however, flourishes.

A Weld county hayfield flourishes, while weeds on the other side of the barbed wire fencing do likewise. Property owners need to work with neighbors to control unwanted vegetation before it gains ground. Tumbleweed especially can become both a fire hazard and clog irrigation ditches. Photo by Marty Metzger

That noxious weed and others claim what had previously been well-maintained cropland. And wildfire then has a greater chance of causing immense property damage or loss, and even deaths, in surrounding locations.

2014 AND BEYOND

In 2014, Colorado ranchers and other land owners were at their wits’ end. Enduring what might otherwise win “America’s Funniest Videos,” they battled months of tumbleweed tornadoes and their aftermath.

In the southern part of the state, for example, rural roads became chronically blocked, as did irrigation canals and entrance/egress to residences and schools. Plus, it’s expensive to continually remove massive heaps of weeds. Usually paid for with taxpayer money.

East of Pueblo, Crowley County spent upwards of $100,000 (more than a third of its annual budget) to keep roads cleared and drivers moving. El Paso County, which included Colorado Springs, doled out over $200,000. Now, that’s a lot of weed!

At least one pregnant woman nearing labor pleaded for help, fearing entrapment in her home as the woody weed piles speedily scaled her home’s doors. Firemen cut a path to rescue her.

Town and city officials tried lots of possible strategies: valiant snow blower attacks; tractors retrofitted with attachments that can handily cut alfalfa and other grasses; burning (dangerous); baling for cow feed; converting tumbleweed into biofuel pellets.

Drawbacks to all these tactics apparently proved most every battle plan ineffective. The bouncy weed jams machinery, is too expensive to process, and/or just flat out doesn’t work.

Farmland and open land in Weld County looks well-maintained and tumbleweed-free. Properties such as these increase their chances of avoiding future issues from the fire-prone Russian thistle and other invasive species. Photo by Marty Metzger

But there’s an old song (by Johnny Cash maybe?) about a worker who snuck an entire automobile home one piece at a time, reassembling the parts into a peculiar vehicle made up of innumerable car brands. One tumbleweed-battling Crowley County Colorado roadman brilliantly devised a similar scheme.

“Bennett” built what resembled an old push mower by cobbling together leftover pieces and parts of all things mechanical. With tongue-in-cheek, the unique weed-eater he concocted was called “Puff the Magic Dragon.” (People of a certain age will understand.)

Puff seemed up to the job back in 2014, gallantly grinding up the weed. Voila, roads cleared!.

Now, fast-forward to 2022. It remains frighteningly dry in many areas of the West; tumbleweed-fueled fires are a fast-approaching concern.

It’s an incessant scenario — wildfires strip land of vegetation. Potent and impregnable Russian thistle re-seeds the barren, burnt ground; they grow up to dry out in further droughts; plants works loose from their base; they tumble and pile up against fences and in ditches, thus becoming fuel for future fires.

Ditch companies work hard to clear irrigation canals of tumbleweed blockages so water can again flow. But since the thistle is an annual species, the process is unending. Clog, clear, flow, re-grow, clog, clear, etc. One landowner reported her ditch company got her 2021 irrigation water flowing, but a few weeks late.

Landowners can prevent worse problems just by staying on top of the messy dilemma in the first place.

HELP IS AVAILABLE

It’s hard to believe that, in the midst of all this weedy chaos, some property owners blandly observe as Kochia and Russian thistle (both Eurasian invasives) whirl and twirl by. Phone calls, texts, e-mails and threats from neighbors often go apathetically unanswered.

One woman actually shared a foolproof method of ridding land of troublesome tumbies: “Just gather it all up with a pitchfork and fling it over the fence onto your neighbor’s land! This is the West. That’s how we handle these things out here!”

Neighborly. Or maybe she was merely being sarcastic? Anyway, it can all make a farmer’s head spin nearly as fast as do the (neighbors’) weeds. But help is available.

Rita Anthes of the Larimer County Weed Department advised that, although her unit doesn’t aggressively pursue offenders via legal measures, they do check out complaints. Inspections might be made.

Courtesy letters are then sent out. If these advisements and further attempts go unheeded, removal costs can be assessed to indifferent property owners.

But, noted Anthes, her department sincerely seeks to educate and encourage owners about weed issues before they get out of control. The Weed Department is there to offer expert advice.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For information about some northern Colorado weed control/fire hazard plans, including tumbleweed, contact:

Larimer County Weed Department, (970) 498-7000

Tina Booton, Weed Division Supervisor, Dept. of Public Works for Weld County, (970) 400-3770

Wellington Fire Protection District, (970) 568-3232. Or email: wfpd@wfpd.org.

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