War of the weeds heats up with new funding

Goats and sheep are grazing leafy purge at the Wilner Elbow Grazing Corp. pasture this summer. |  William DeKay photo

A Sask. program is available to manage large-scale invasive plant infestations using non-herbicide practices

Saskatchewan’s Farm Stewardship Program recently launched new funding to help control further spread of noxious weeds.

The Invasive Plant Biocontrol and Targeted Grazing Best Management Practices program is available for eligible producers and pasture grazing associations to contain and manage large-scale invasive plant infestations by non-herbicide practices.

The program targets wide spread noxious weeds where the use of herbicides is not environmentally feasible because infestations are large and costly to treat.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity and really showing that the province is committed to noxious weed control and to have an integrated approach,” said Nadia Mori, Saskatchewan Agriculture’s range management extension specialist based in Watrous.

“I think we understand that herbicides work and have their place, but when we do have these large infestations on environmentally sensitive land, we need other options.”

The new program’s funding level is 50 percent of eligible costs to a combined total of $45,000 per year.

The targeted small ruminant grazing component is up to $40,000 per project per year on approved noxious weeds, which include leafy spurge, common burdock, Canada thistle, Russian knapweed, common tansy and absinthe.

The maximum rebate for grazing services is $30 per acre.

Where the applicant owns the small ruminant, the total rebate for costs associated with managing the targeted grazing project is $15 per acre.

Insect biological control is up to a maximum of $5,000 for noxious weeds, which include leafy spurge, scentless chamomile, Canada thistle, nodding thistle, field bindweed, yellow toadflax and Russian knapweed.

Pre-approval is necessary to qualify for this best management practice and the application deadline is Aug. 31, 2022. Claims must be received by Dec. 31 that same year.

The eligibility requirement for all the best management practices is a minimum $50,000 gross farm income in the province.

As well, this particular best management practice requires a weed management plan for targeted grazing, a targeted grazing management plan and a record showing that all occurrences have been entered into iMAP, an online invasive species mapping tool.

Leafy spurge is one of the major noxious weeds invading and decimating pastures as it continues to spread and flourish.

“In terms of habitat, it does really well on sandy soils,” Mori said.

“These soils are already more fragile and oftentimes they’re habitat for native plant communities. They will replace the native community with leafy spurge.”

With more than half of its 26,000 acre pasture infested, the Wilner Elbow Grazing Corp. east of Elbow, Sask., has been actively involved in controlling leafy spurge since about 2016, although the noxious weed had about a 20 year history in the pasture before its involvement.

“We talked to some ruminant nutritionists, biologists and grassland people and they said we’re going to lose about 100 cow-calf pairs a year for every year that leafy spurge is not looked after,” said Ian McCreary of the Wilner Elbow Grazing Corp.

For the past three years the grazing corporation has hired targeted grazing contractor Stuart Chutter, who is one of the few grazing service providers in the province able to target large infestations.

Chutter is managing a flock of about 3,500 sheep and goats this year in the Elbow pasture to graze leafy spurge. He is on contract from May to September.

“We’re trying to cover the land twice in a season so that the spurge is grazed twice over throughout the summer so that it doesn’t get a chance to mature and spread new seeds — so trying to decrease the seed bank in the ground,” said Chutter.

“It won’t be killed off. It’ll be stressed and suppressed, and we’re trying to get that stand of spurge to get thinner and thinner over time. So it’s not an immediate solution or short-term plan. Any leafy spurge control is a long-term investment, and grazing is one of the options.”

However, he said progress is being made after three years of grazing.

“We can see that we’re making a difference. We can see the difference comparing it to land that’s not being grazed, the spurge density is obvious,” he said.

Mori pointed out that eradication is not really feasible with targeted grazing or even bio-control.

“For example, on Elbow, we’re hoping to thin out the leafy spurge enough that at some point the patches become so thinned out that then you can move to spot spraying,” she said.

Added McCreary: “The goats, particularly, do an incredible job of eating the spurge off to allow the grass to compete. The research on this subject would indicate that it’s a long-term strategy to try and beat a weed problem with competitive and multispecies grazing.…

“It will probably take a generation. By the time my kids are my age hopefully we’ll start to see a more permanent change in the ecosystem such that the balance between the spurge pressure and the grass pressure is permanently transitioning.”

Chutter said the noxious weed problem could be an opportunity because targeted grazing will create a “gateway” in start-up business opportunities for small ruminant producers.

“It is something that young people who are looking for a way to get involved in agriculture or start their own farm businesses should consider,” he said.

“And established farmers, landowners and land managers with leafy spurge problems should be looking to young sheep producers and beginner farmers to help them manage their spurge problem.”

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