Scientist works with Flint Hills ranchers to manage noxious weed

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MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Like many ranchers, Bill Sproul experiences the rewards and challenges of ranching on Kansas’ tallgrass prairie. And he considers sericea lespedeza the No. 1 long-term threat for ranchers like him.

Sericea lespedeza is an invasive, noxious weed that infests approximately 600,000 acres of native tallgrass prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills. Tannins in the weed hamper protein digestion by beef cattle and cause abdominal discomfort, so cattle learn to avoid it, which renders some land useless for grazing.

“It’s a major, major issue. Long term, I feel that it’s the biggest threat to the tallgrass prairie. The drought is the No. 1 issue short term, but sericea is the No. 1 issue long term,” said Sproul, who grazes more than 3,000 head of cattle on his Chautauqua County ranch.

“We’ve been working on it for 10 to 12 years with chemicals, and it’s only gotten worse,” he said. “Chemicals are part of the solution but not the whole solution.”

K-State Research and Extension scientist K.C. Olson agrees. He and a team of researchers and extension agents are working with Sproul and others – some of whom are part of an organization called the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance – in looking for ways to control the weed. 

“One reason for sericea’s invasive nature is its capability to reproduce. One plant can produce thousands of seeds annually. We address that currently with herbicides,” said Olson. But herbicides are not specific – they kill other valuable plants, plus rugged terrain and the robust tallgrass canopy prevent chemicals from contacting immature plants.

“Another reason for sericea’s invasive nature is its ability to avoid grazing through its mildly toxic tannins. Without grazing pressure, sericea continues to reproduce unabated.”

“[Olson’s] work stands out because he’s trying to figure out how to live with sericea. His approach is probably the only long-term feasible approach. If he succeeds, ecologists will be so thankful,” said wildlife biologist, Jim Minnerath, who is retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but remains involved in the issue.

In looking for a safe, inexpensive supplement that could be fed to cattle and might counteract the protein-binding effects of sericea, the researchers identified corn steep liquor (CSL), a non-alcoholic byproduct of corn sweetener production, as having strong anti-tannin properties. At the time of the study, CSL sold at about $5 per ton.

“In a series of five studies, cattle readily consumed it,” said Olson of the supplement, “and suffered none of the digestive disorders characteristic of tannin consumption.”

He noted that beef cattle displayed increased acceptance of and tolerance for sericea lespedeza by supplementing with two to four pounds of CSL per day.

“That’s significant,” Olson said. “If we can remove the negative consequences of tannin consumption through strategic supplementation, we can probably apply significant grazing pressure to sericea lespedeza and achieve a measure of biological control using the most economically relevant herbivores in the Flint Hills – steers and cows. Benefits may include improved rangeland health, improved animal welfare, reduced herbicide usage, and an inexpensive and manageable control method for this plant.”

More information about the research is available at and search for ‘Cattlemen’s Day sericea lespedeza.’

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Tex Hall    
Marlow, OK  |  December, 12, 2012 at 03:31 PM

There's a simpler and more efficient method of controlling or outright eliminating lespedeza: GOATS. Goats eat the entire plant, it's seed pods and seeds. In about three years with a proper stocking rate, all of the lespedeza is gone. Low goat stocking rates thereafter will eliminate the volunteer plants and those that are brought back into the pastures. Since you won't need to spray or coat the plants, the majority of your initial fencing costs are covered. Put the pencil to the paper and you'll show a profit in the first year of using goats even if you assume paying interest on the money to buy stocker goats. Adding goats to your operation will reduce other noxious weeds and cut your spraying/fuel/equipment maintenance costs even more. Your soil will be healthier for growing good feed for your cattle. You'll diversify your operation and increase your bottom line overall. Goats will eleiminate your lespedeza problem and add profit to your operation. Tex Hall

Tex Hall    
Marlow, OK  |  December, 12, 2012 at 03:42 PM

Sorry...forgot to put in this version of my comment that I got details on stocking rates, time frame for elimination of the lespedeza, and projected first year profits from Langston University of OK. I knew of folks in SE Oklahoma who used goats to rid their pastures of lespedeza. I met several goat ranchers from a sale where I worked years ago who looked for pastures with lespedeza so they could graze their goats as well. Langston is one of - if not The - premier goat universities in the US. Tex


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