Grenville farmer takes aim at noxious weeds

Farm Forum

GRENVILLE — Mike Block stands on the edge of a wheat field in Day County, looks at the adjoining property and bristles about thistles.

Noxious weeds on patches of property in the area are a common gripe when farmers gather for coffee, he said. The problem, he said, is that weeds, such as Canada thistle and wormwood, are growing at a problematic rate on some land that’s enrolled in conservation programs.

“There’s 40 acres of disaster there,” Block said of a field northwest of Grenville that’s in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and has noxious weeds mixed with vegetation.

Behind Block, to the west, are bales of wheat scattered across a harvested field of gold that has been sprayed and shows no signs of weeds, noxious or otherwise.

Most landowners, especially local grain farmers, are good about spraying for weeds, Block said. But there are a handful who aren’t. And that can be troubling, because noxious weeds are often fast to grow and spread and can be tough to eliminate.

Block and his son farm about 2,000 acres of land and do custom spraying, harvesting and chopping from Webster/Langford area south to Florence.

On a road southwest of Grenville and along a patch of land entered in the Conservation Reserve Program, Block spots more noxious weeds.

“That’s a frickin’ disaster, man,” he said.

Block said he called U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency officials about the out-of-control noxious weeds last year, but it didn’t yield any results. The weeds need to be cut and sprayed, perhaps for more than one year, to get the problem under control, he said. Either that, or the checks sent to the offending landowners by USDA need to be withheld because keeping noxious weeds out of the field is one of the contract stipulations of land enrolled in conservation programs, he said.

Actually, noxious weeds have to be controlled on all land under state and county law. But those who have land enrolled in CRP or CREP have an extra incentive to keep the weeds away.

Craig Schaunaman, executive director of the South Dakota Farm Service Agency, said ongoing noxious weed offenses could lead to reduced payments or even canceled CRP or CREP contracts.

Both programs pay property owners for land that is not being farmed, but is planted with flora that helps limit erosion, improve water quality, control flooding and provide cover for wildlife.

There’s no doubt the programs are good ones, Block said. The per-acre payments are probably more than what landowners can get for cash rent. He just wants the weeds dealt with.

Schaunaman, who was not speaking specifically about the land Block takes issue with, said he understands why an infestation of noxious weeds would be aggravating to adjoining landowners. He grants that there are noxious weed problems on conservation and other land across the state, though said it’s less of an issue than it used to be. What looks like a major outbreak of noxious weeds to one farmer might not seem so big to another, he said.

Regardless, he said, the weeds are to be controlled. Counties have weed supervisors who respond to problems on land not enrolled in conservation programs.

Canada thistle, wormwood and other perennial weeds are considered noxious statewide. Others, usually weeds that are biennial, can be designated as noxious by individual counties.

FSA has a policy in place for land in CRP or CREP contracts, Schaunaman said. When a county office gets a call about noxious weeds, a site analysis needs to be done, he said. If the problem is found to be legitimate, a letter is sent out notifying the offending landowner and explaining that the weeds need to be eliminated.

“If you’re a holder of a contract (you) need to be a good steward of the land,” he said.

Those who want to report noxious weeds to FSA don’t need to identify themselves, Schaunaman said.

Block, though, has no problem identifying himself. He wants to get the attention of the offenders even if it aggravates them.

“If the check doesn’t come, that’s the way to get (their) attention,” he said.

The number of South Dakota acres enrolled in the CRP program has dipped in recent years and is just under 1 million, Schaunaman said. That includes CREP acres as they are part of the larger CRP program. Both programs have 10- and 15-year contracts.

CREP is different than standard CRP in that all acres enrolled in it are public walk-in wildlife areas. It’s a joint program between FSA and the state of South Dakota in which the state contributes money in return for the land being open to hunters, Schaunaman said.

Land in standard CRP is often used for hunting, but access to it remains under the control of the property owner.

Farmers who are battling noxious weeds on conservation program or any other ag land should consider spraying for them after the fall’s first frost, Schaunaman said.

“The best time to address a lot of those weed concerns is in the fall,” he said. “We’re not in the growing season.”

Common noxious weeds in northeast South Dakota

Perennial weeds

• Canada thistle

Description/traits: Smooth, medium, green, spine-tipped leaves; 2 to 5 feet tall; numerous flowers on head, usually pink or white; roots 10 to 15 feet deep; grows in all cultivated crops, pastures, range, trees and wetlands; capable of rapid spread.

• Leafy spurge

Description/traits: Alternating long and narrow dark, drooping, dark green leaves; small green flowers surrounded by yellow-green bracts; dark brown roots with pink buds, may reach 20 feet deep; grows statewide; common in pasture and range; difficult to control.

• Perennial sowthistle

Description/traits: Dandelion-shaped leaves 4 to 8 inches long; smooth stems 3 to 7 feet tall; branched clusters of yellow-orange flowers; deep, spreading roots; common in cultivated fields, pastures and roadsides, especially in wet areas.

• Hoary cress

Description/traits: Lower leaves spatulate, tapered, slender base while upper leaves clasp around stem; stems 1 to 2 feet tall, branched toward top; small, white, four-petaled flowers at top; roots 10 to 15 feet deep; common in roadsides, pastures and range; must be treated in early spring.

• Purple loosestrife

Description/traits: Leaves have smooth margins and no stalk; stiff, woody stems 4 to 8 feet tall; purple-magenta flowers arranged in long spikes; very heavy roots; problematic in marshes, along streams and in wetlands.

• Saltcedar

Description/traits: Shrub/tree; leaves are cedar-like and branched, green stems; smooth, woody dark brown-to-reddish brown stems; white to deep pink, five-petaled flowers that form in clusters in mid- to late summer; deep, expansive taproot; common along flood plains, rivers and lakes; excessive water consumers.

Biennial weeds

• Spotted knapweed

Description/traits: Stems 1 to 3 feet tall, hairy branches; pink to purple flowers, dark spots on flower bracts; common in pastures, range and roadsides.

• Diffuse knapweed

Description/traits: Harry, narrow, divided, grayish-green leaves; stems 1 to 2 feet tall, rough and erect; white to rose or purplish flowers; long taproot; common in pasture, range and roadsides; very competitive plant.

• Musk thistle

Description/traits: Coarsely toothed, dark green leaves with white midrib; stems 4 to 6 feet tall and stout; large, 2-inch flowers that are deep rose to lavender in color; heavy, branching roots; common in pastures, range, trees and along creeks and dugouts; aggressive and a prolific seed producer.

• Plumeless thistle

Description/traits: Deeply divided, crinkly, hairy leaves; stems 3 to 5 feet long and branched; reddish-purple flowers produced in clusters; heavy, branched taproot; common in pastures, range, trees and along creeks and dugouts; aggressive, control before bloom.

• Bull thistle

Description/traits: large, deeply lobed, thick dark green leaves; stems 3 to 6 feet tall; 1- to 2-inch flowers, shaving brush-shaped, rose to deep purple in color; heavy, branched taproot; common in pastures, range, trees and farmlands.

• Field bindweed

Description/traits: Arrowhead-shaped leaves with generally rounded tips; smooth stems 2 to 7 feet long, spread over the ground; white or pink, funnel-shaped flowers about an inch thick; extensive roots that reach 20 to 30 feet deep; common in cultivated fields, pastures, range, trees, roadsides, home grounds, adapted to dry conditions, the most widespread noxious weed in South Dakota; requires a two-to-four-year control plan.

• Absinth wormwood

Description/traits: Leaves 2 to 5 inches long gray-green in color; stems 2 to 4 feet tall, heavily branched and grayish-green; distinct sage fragrance; small, yellow, short-stalked flowers; extremely heavy roots; common in pastures, trees and roadsides, especially East River; also called wormwood sage; need to be controlled in fall or spring when less than 12 inches tall.

• Yellow toadflax

Description/traits: Numerous, pale green leaves about 2.5 inches long; erect stems 1 to 2 feet long; yellow to pale cream flowers about an inch long; often flowers in late summer; common in non-cropland, waste areas, roadsides, grassland, range and cultivated fields; difficult to control and mildly poisonous to livestock.

• Poison hemlock

Description/traits: Fernlike, finely divided leaves; musky odor; erect, purple stems 3 to 10 feet tall with purple blotches; white flowers with five petals; taproot; common in moist sites in pasture, range and roadsides; all parts poisonous and could be lethal; sometimes confused with non-toxic plants such as wild parsnip.

• European common reed

Description/traits: Greenish-gray leaves from 2 inches to 24 inches wide; rough, dull stems that can grow to 15 feet; fluffy, flowering plume in mid- to late September; common in sunny wetland habitats, including marshes, streams, lake shores, ponds, wet meadows and road ditches.

• Puncture vine

Description/traits: Small, oblong, hairy leaves divided into compound leaves; hairy stems; small, yellow, five-petaled flowers; simple taproot; common in roadsides, waste areas and along sidewalks in open, droughty, trafficked areas; also called Texas sandbur or goathead.

• Common burdock

Description/traits: Large, heart-shaped, dark green leaves; branched, hairy stems 3 to 5 feet tall; numerous red-violet flowers surrounded by hooked bracts; large, fleshy taproot; common along trees, creeks and streams; also called wild rhubarb; burs become tangled in hair and wool.

• Chicory

Description/traits: Lower leaves rosette, toothed while stem leaves clasp at base; erect, branched stems with ridges; blue or purple flowers with fine-toothed points; taproot that may be branched; common in roadsides, pasture and waste areas; used as a coffee substitute; may cause dermatitis.

Source: South Dakota State University College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences, South Dakota State University Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture.