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As Nutritious as Cardboard

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They might have saved large swaths of Texas from blowing away during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, but today they’re unwelcome tenants—interlopers from another time and place.

Two types of grass, one originally from China and the other from South Africa, are taking over the southeastern part of the state. Known, respectively, as King Ranch bluestem and Kleberg bluestem, they were once widely planted to stop erosion on ranches and roadsides. They’re both hardy species whose seeds travel on the wind and whose growth crowds out native grasses. That’s a problem, today’s ranchers say, because little else now grows on grazing lands, and the two bluestems offer little in the way of nutrition for cattle; one Texas A&M extension agent in this article compares them to cardboard.

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Now ranchers are spending lots of time and money to try to get rid of the two bluestems—plowing them under, burning them, and finally applying expensive herbicides. The herbicides work, although using them means destroying everything in the field and starting over.

“It’s not like they can go to the cattle auction barn and charge more for their calves just because they paid more to produce [them],” notes the extension agent. “‘OK, I had to spray more for this grass; now I’m going to charge 10 cents extra per pound for my beef.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

Even a successfully treated field, freed from bluestem and planted with more nutritious native plants, is good only until the wind blows bluestem seed back onto the land. Some are hopeful that a bluestem-specific herbicide can be developed, but it’s a long way off and would require more investment in research than many chemical companies are willing to invest.

Have you tackled the job of removing a non-native plant from an environment where it’s outcompeting its neighbors? What other strategies would you suggest? EC_bug_web

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  1. These bluestems are not unlike kudzu in the southeast and crested wheatgrass and smooth brome in the high plains and intermountain west. They all were brought in from Asia to control erosion and increase forage. When those original seeds were imported, another nasty seed bank was introduced – cheat grass – which is an annual brome that is highly invasive and not so tasty to both livestock and wildlife. Finally, tumbleweed, for which the west is famous – actually is also an invader with the common name – Russian Thistle. Yet, another form of early Russian tampering in the US.

  2. The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) through the University of Florida has investigated biological controls for some invasives in Florida. Two of them are for the melaleuca tree and the air potato vine. While the controls do not eradicate the plant, they decrease the spread and make other forms of treatment more successful at lower costs.

  3. Bamboo is another invasive species. Imported as an ornamental, it can spread far beyond its original bed and is very difficult to either contain or to completely remove. It crowds out other, more desirable flowers and shrubs. It gets into lawn grasses too.

    There are also a number of invasive animal species, including the asian carp which is taking over a number of waterways in the eastern US. Videos of these fish leaping out of the water may be amusing, but they have devastated native species and ruined commercial and sport fisheries.

  4. A strategy needs to be developed to treat the entire affected region, and every landowner has to be onboard with accepting that as being the best possible method of achieving success. In other words, not likely unless the entire society is in danger of collapse, and then it’s less than 50-50 chance. Or there may be a silver bullet out there somewhere. St. John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum) was rapidly overtaking rangeland in parts of the west, and when ingested by cattle it made them lose weight. A beetle was engineered that ate nothing but flowering st. john’s wort, and the rapidity of the spread was controlled, at least somewhat. I haven’t followed this for some years now, so there may be an update as to the long term effectiveness. Any solution to a biological dominance problem needs to be monitored for unintended consequences.

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