Now You See Them, Now You Don’t (But They Might Still Be There!)

Grazing, especially by goats and/or sheep, is often promoted as a control method for weeds or shrubs.  Depending upon the life strategy of the weeds being targeted, grazing can be effective, but it’s important to set realistic objectives.  As you might expect, many perennial grasses, forbs, and shrubs have evolved strategies for surviving repeated defoliation.  In those cases, grazing may appear to effectively control plants while grazers are present, but the plants bounce back right after grazers are removed.

One of my all-time favorite research projects showcases this exact phenomenon at a site in South Dakota owned by The Nature Conservancy.  Back in the early 1990’s, an estimated 75% of the Conservancy’s Altamont Prairie Preserve was covered by leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula).  In 1994, goats and sheep were installed in separate pastures and spurge was treated by using periodic high-intensity grazing sessions during both early summer and early fall.  Both the goats and sheep were very effective at eating the spurge plants, and after five years, managers conducting walk-through inspections the site felt like excellent long-term control of spurge had been achieved.  Inside small exclosures, spurge was still abundant and vigorous, but outside the exclosures, almost no plants could be seen.  As a result, the goats and sheep were removed and everyone was happy.

One of the goats used at Altamont Prairie and an exclosure showing a dramatic difference between abundant and blooming leafy spurge in ungrazed areas and no apparent spurge in grazed areas. Photos courtesy of TNC’s Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota Chapter.

…Until the next season when spurge plants popped right back out of the ground and the pasture looked essentially as it had before the grazing treatment had started.  In dismay, the managers looked for another option and decided upon flea beetles (Apthona spp.), which ended up being a much more successful choice, greatly reducing the footprint of leafy spurge over the next several years.

You’d be excused for thinking the use of sheep and goats was a total waste of effort, but additional data collected at Altamont Prairie adds some interesting nuance.  As it happens, mean Floristic Quality (a kind of qualified plant diversity metric) stayed relatively stable within the grazed area during the five years sheep and goats were present.  During the same time period, mean Floristic Quality decreased significantly in exclosures.  In other words, while grazing didn’t eliminate the spurge problem, it may have stabilized some of its negative impacts for a while.

This, to me, is one of the best attributes of many grazing-for-weed-control efforts.  Even if grazing can’t eradicate many weeds/shrubs from a prairie, it might be a strategy that prevents further spread (eliminating flowers and reducing vigor for belowground reproduction) and/or reduces the weed’s ability to compete with desirable plants.  In a large site where more effective long-term strategies (such as selective herbicide application or biocontrol releases) aren’t feasible across the whole area, using grazing as a suppression tactic in some areas of the site while you kill it in others can make a lot of sense.  In other words, grazing might buy you time to work on a problem that would otherwise seem overwhelming in scope.  (However, it’s also important to remember that grazers will also be eating and suppressing the vigor and reproduction of desirable species with similar growth strategies to the invader you’re targeting.  If you do succeed in reducing populations of invaders, you might also reduce populations of those desirable plants.)

Grazing can sometimes provide effective control of short-lived plants if it prevents flowering and seed production and forces plants to die without reproducing.  Just remember that more seeds are likely waiting in the soil, so it will likely take repeated grazing treatments to reach your goal.  Here in Nebraska, we often use short-term intensive grazing as a tool to knock back the competitive ability of perennial cool-season grasses such as smooth brome (Bromus inermis) or Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis).  We don’t expect the grazing to kill those grass plants (and it doesn’t) but we can allow other plants a chance to flourish for a few years until the invasive grasses regain their vigor.  By repeating the treatment periodically, we can maintain a more diverse plant community.

Periodic early-season cattle intensive grazing helps us temporarily suppress cool-season invasive grasses like smooth brome and reduce its ability to outcompete many native grasses and wildflowers.

Personally, I’ve never used goats or sheep to help with a management challenge.  In contrast with cattle, goats and sheep, feed preferentially on forbs, and I’m usually trying to suppress grasses and encourage forb growth.  However, I do think goats, sheep, and cattle can all play important roles in controlling invasives as long as you don’t expect them to do more than they can.  I worry that landowners and land managers can sometimes end up paying an exorbitant price to someone that brings animals in with the promise of weed control.  It’s important to remember that if you do that, you’re providing food for that contractor’s animals, and that should be factored into whatever price one of you pays the other.  When we use cattle for prairie management, the cattle owner always pays us.  That seems not to be the case with many goat grazing operations.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to pay someone to graze their goats on your land, I’m just saying it’s important to fully process what each party is getting from the transaction.  That includes the forage provided to the animals from your land, the time and expenses incurred by the owner of the animals, and  – importantly – the actual effectiveness of the treatment.

As long as you have clear objectives and a good understanding of the plant(s) you’re targeting, grazing may be a great tool for invasive species control.  Just remember one of the biggest lessons from the South Dakota spurge experiment: just because you can’t see the invasive plant anymore doesn’t mean it’s gone!

Categorizing Invasive Plants

Managing invasive plant species is often the greatest challenge faced by land managers.  Because there are so many invasives and so little time, it’s critically important to be thoughtful about how to approach them.  There is much good advice available about how to prioritize which species to focus on and how to approach those priority species.  My own approach to invasives continues to change over time.  For what it’s worth, here’s how I think (today) about categorizing invasive plants on our sites here in Nebraska.

I can put most invasive plant species into one of four categories that describe how we approach control.

  1. Thin the matrix
  2. Beat them back
  3. Nip them in the bud
  4. Live with them


Category 1 – Thin the matrix.

Invasive grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, smooth brome, and tall fescue are excellent examples of species in this group.  They are plant species that are common enough that they occur throughout most of our sites, and – if left unmanaged – can form thick monocultures that exclude most other plant species.  Eradication of these species is not possible without losing many of the other plants we are hoping to conserve.  Instead, our general approach is to reduce their dominance and limit their impact on the diversity of the plant community.  (I wrote about this approach in an earlier post, using Kentucky bluegrass as an example.)

Essentially, we try to use fire, grazing, and/or mowing to weaken invasive grass plants and open up space between them for other species to flourish.  Because these suppression strategies also have negative impacts on some native species, we are careful not to use them too many years in a row.  Instead, we apply them periodically, whenever it looks like the invasives are starting to exert their dominance a little too much.

Prescribed fire and grazing are the two best ways we attack invasive grasses such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass.

Prescribed fire and grazing are the two best ways we attack invasive grasses such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass.

Category 2. Beat them back.

This group includes perennial plants that radiate outward other otherwise spread from an established source population.  Species we commonly deal with that fit into this category include purple loosestrife, sericea lespedeza, and Canada thistle.  It can be tempting to jump in and start attacking (with herbicides or other approaches) the biggest thickest patches of these, but that’s rarely the smartest strategy.  Instead it usually makes more sense to work from the outside edges of an infestation toward the middle – or source – so that the problem doesn’t continue to get worse as you attack.  I wrote an earlier post on that topic as well…

An exception to the “work from the outside edge first” rule applies to species such as Siberian elms that may be spreading from a single discrete patch of parent trees.  If it’s possible to eliminate that source population by cutting down a handful of trees, it absolutely makes sense to do that first.  Next, it’s smart to target other elms that are big enough to produce seed before working on the smaller ones – rather than blindly following the rule about working from the edges of an infestation.  Rules are meant to be broken, after all.


Category 3. Nip them in the bud.

This category contains invasive species that are just starting to show up in our area or at a particular site.  Here, the tactic is to seek and destroy new plants as soon as they arrive, to prevent the species from becoming established.  After all, it’s always better to attack an invasive species before it gains a foothold.

Many species can fit within this group.  For us, Common reed (Phragmites australis), crown vetch, garlic mustard, and Queen Anne’s Lace (aka wild carrot) are good examples.  Sometimes, we’re not sure if a species will really cause serious problems if it becomes established at our sites (e.g., Queen Anne’s Lace) but if minimal effort can prevent that establishment, it seems  like time well spent.

Our approach to musk thistle sort of fits into this “nip it in the bud” category, but for other reasons.  Musk thistle is an officially-designated noxious weed in Nebraska, and all landowners (including us) are required to eradicate it from their property each year.  If it weren’t for the state law, musk thistle would not be among our highest priority species because it really doesn’t cause big problems in most cases (on our sites).  It is most abundant where the dominant vegetation has been recently weakened by fire, grazing, or drought, but quickly diminishes in abundance when grasses recover their dominance.  However, to abide by the law and to prevent thistles on our land from going to seed and affecting our neighbors, we do our best each year to eradicate musk thistle.


Tier 4. Live with them.

This last group includes species we don’t actually consider to be invasives, at least by the criteria that a truly invasive plant acts to reduce biological diversity or otherwise simplify (and thus weaken) natural communities.  Many native species are considered weeds by some of our neighbors, but we like having them around.  Prime examples include annual sunflower and ragweed species.  However, many non-native plants fall within this category as well, including common mullein, dandelions, goatsbeard, marestail, and sweet clover.  Sometimes, we spend some time collecting and/or analyzing data to help ensure that we’re categorizing these species correctly.  A good example of that was discussed in an earlier post on sweet clover.

Dandelions are a species we just live with.  They're great for early season pollinators, and aren't aggressive - they just fill space when the perennial plant community is weakened (as they are doing here in the lot around our shop buildings).

Dandelions are a species we just live with. They’re great for early season pollinators, and aren’t aggressive – they just fill space when the perennial plant community is weakened (as they are doing here in the lot around our shop buildings).

Switching Categories.

Ideally, of course, we’d be able to move some invasive plant species from one category to another, so that populations of “matrix” invasives shrink to the point they are in discrete patches and we can “beat them back.”  Likewise, it’d be great if “beat them back” invasives became rare enough that we could eventually “nip them in the bud”.  Unfortunately, reality usually goes the other direction.  For example, we’re dangerously close to having to shift garlic mustard from “nip it in the bud” into the “beat them back” category (if not the “thin the matrix” category!) at a nice woodland site we manage.  We’ll see what the next year or two brings.

We hope that using more frequent fire (along with other methods) will help us prevent garlic mustard from spreading across our whole property at the Rulo Bluffs Preserve, but it's a big challenge.

We hope that using more frequent fire (along with other methods) will help us prevent garlic mustard from spreading across our whole property at the Rulo Bluffs Preserve, but it’s a big challenge.

Regardless, I find it helpful to think about our invasive plants within categories like these because we can more easily define both our control strategies and objectives.  Putting a species into the “nip it in the bud” category helps make it a top priority and we can prioritize resources toward keeping it rare.  Just as importantly, if we know that we’re only trying to suppress the dominance of smooth brome, not eradicate it, we don’t have to beat our heads against the wall in frustration because smooth brome is still present.

We spend more time on invasive plant control than on any other land management activity.  Unfortunately, that’s true of most land managers I know.  More unfortunately, invasive species numbers are going up, not down.  It’s not time to throw in the towel just yet, but it is absolutely critical to be organized and thoughtful about how we approach these invaders.

Hopefully, being organized will allow us to spend less time on invasives and more time enjoying the sites we manage!