Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The War of the Weeds

Every year of our ranching life is different.  One year it's drought, another year it's too much rain, another it's range caterpillars, one year it was June bugs (which piled up against the house in piles literally feet deep).  This year, it's locoweed. I've been posting about our battle with locoweed on Facebook and I'm surprised to read that many people don't understand the severity of this issue or think it's just something that cowboys (implication: "ignorant cowboys") have made up.

Really, though, locoweed poisoning is a serious and expensive problem. Our main loco is wooly locoweed (Astragalus mollissimus) with some white locoweed (Oxytropis sericea). I don't have much trouble with the white- it's the wooly that's my main enemy. Once cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and wildlife get habituated or addicted to locoweed, they're pretty much ruined. The weed messes with their nervous system and they become easily startled, aggressive, disoriented, and eventually die of heart failure or some other organ breakdown.  Cattle lose a lot of weight, which is where the economic loss enters.  Horses are useless for work- putting a halter on can cause them to go bezerk. Both will seek out and eat the weed, to the point of getting on their knees and rooting for roots after they've eaten the top plant.

The only real solution at the time is to keep animals from grazing it. They don't prefer locoweed at first- green grass is still preferred- but if the grass is brown and the locoweed green, then cattle will start on it. It sounds easy to "just keep them away" but when your pastures are infested with it, that's easier said than done.

Tour of locoweed in pasture

Fortunately, 1/2 of two pastures are relatively clean.  And fortunately, in one pasture, those cattle are staying off the loco.  In the other pasture, the cattle went to it immediately.  After a week of watching them eat it, we drove them to the far other side of the pasture where it's "clean".  We left them at the windmill with salt, cattle cake, and protein tubs, all in an attempt to create an attraction that would overcome the attraction of the loco.  Within 4 hours they'd covered the 2 miles back to the loco.  And that's another issue... I think most people who've tried suggesting options simply don't understand the distances, space, and size of the pastures and problem.  I'm talking "miles" here. You can't go out and spray individual plants- there are hundreds of thousands of them. Aerial spraying is very expensive, must be done with winds of < 8 mph and relative humidity around 50% and then it takes 120 days (that's 4 MONTHS) for the plants to die (by which point they're dead anyway).

Anyway, after the cattle moved back to the loco, we gathered them up and penned them. I have a little grassy wing off the pens that I've left ungrazed for years for this exact purpose.  Combined with $80 hay bales (that last 2 days each), this gave us a week of "rehab".  After that, we started grazing them in the dirt road lane where there is abundant, never grazed, grass.  We'd turn them out, sit on our ATV's and watch them for a few hours, then re-pen them. We did this twice a day, usually.  We finally got them trained to eat grass- coming off green winter wheat fields, I honestly don't think they knew how- and put them back into the pasture, at the far East end again.

This pasture has a natural barrier of sorts in the form of a rough canyon. Cattle have to come up to peninsula to cross this canyon.  For the next few weeks, we guarded this peninsula and pushed cattle back.  We fed.  We moved all salt and attractants to the mill.  And then we put an electric wire fence, the first we've ever used on this ranch, cutting the pasture into "safe" and "loco".

Blue line is electric fence. Note how canyon divides pasture.
Loco on the left, good stuff on the right.

Putting the fence up was an adventure itself.  First, I had to buy all the stuff.  That took some touring of my cousin's electric fence to see how the things work, then over to Texline TX, back to Clayton, and- $1000 poorer- back home.  Then, we went to our fence post pile and after loading up 100 fence posts, I pulled out and immediately ran over a huge rock hidden in the grass. This smashed my Chevy's exhaust pipe up, broke the header, and punched a hole in the transfer case. The eventual repair bill was $4000 which, thank God, insurance picked up (except for the $1000 deductible).  After parking the truck, I decided to just drive my skid steer 2.5 miles to the construction site. I did that and upon arriving immediately smelled "overheating", plus all my warning lights started flashing.  After some quick troubleshooting, I found a busted serpentine belt. This, of course, runs the alternator and coolant fan, which is why I overheated. So now I had no truck and a dead skid-steer in the pasture. This being Saturday, we had no hope of getting a new belt either. There really was nothing to do but starting pounding posts by hand. Sunday afternoon, we ran out of posts and took the Ranger to get more. In the process, I ran over a fence post and blew a tire. We fixed that in the field with a plug and portable air compressor and go running again. By Sunday evening we had 1/2 mile pounded and were pretty tired. On Monday, I had a belt lined up and my Monday afternoon, not only did we have the belt in but we had the remaining 1.5 miles of posts driven.  That's how much faster things go with the right tools. By Tues, we had a 2 wire electric fence up.

That's not supposed to look like this.

Chevy helping Chevy

Dead skid steer

Supposed to be a belt there

Doing things the old-fashioned (slow) way

Supposed to have air in it

At the same time, Georgia was digging up locoweed plants in the "clean" side just to do everything we could to minimize use of the plant. She'd watch the cattle and dig plants and after 3 weeks of doing this, filled 3 dumpsters to the brim with locoweed plants.  And this was from the "clean" pasture!

Digging locoweed

The MAIN problem with this locoweed stuff is that I can't stock cattle.  And if I can't stock cattle, we don't make any money.  If we don't make any money, we go broke. I don't think most people understand the overhead required of running a 27,000 acre ranch. With taxes, State Land lease on part of it, salary, insurance, expenses, etc, overhead runs close to $100,000. That's not something you just pull out of your wallet.  The worst part is that, here I grazed conservatively for 6 years to recover from a drought, brought the pastures back to thick grass, and we can't even use it because of the locoweed.  Well, nothing to do except move forward as best as we can, I guess.

Electric fence is up- going over horizon