Weed-free, profit-full

Everyone recognizes a pesky dandelion when it decides to pop out of the ground, just itching to spread its seeds and invade the neighbor’s perfect lawn. Want proof? Just sit outside on a windy day and watch the long white seeds detach from the seed head, take a ride along the wind and disappear, only to proliferate somewhere else.

Weeds and invasive species have always been a problem, from musk thistle to zebra mussels to feral hogs, curbing their distribution and protecting native plants, animals and ecosystems is a never-ending task. One of the most common avenues weeds and invasive species are circulated is through hay and forage, and because of the long distance we transport hay it often introduces species to areas they have never been present before. However, one program is working to reduce the conveyance of these plants by certifying forage weed free, while adding value to hay crops for growers to capitalize on.

In the 1990s, the North American Invasive Species Management Association unified multiple states in an effort to reduce the spread of noxious and invasive species in forage and mulch by developing a standard for certifying weed-free hay.

"There is a growing demand in North America for the use of certified weed-free forage and mulch as a preventative program in integrated weed management systems to limit the spread of noxious weeds,” said Dave Burch, NAISMA weed-free forage and gravel program manager. “NAISMA provides minimum standards to help insure programs are consistent across jurisdictional boundaries.”

The wicked weeds of North America

Some of the states that participate in the program include: Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Iowa and Missouri.

Scott Marsh, the noxious and invasive weeds and agricultural seed specialist at the Kansas Department of Agriculture, says this program is crucial to stopping invasive species from moving to new states.

“Historically, hay and straw have been very important vectors for transporting weed seeds,” he said. “A lot of weeds were introduced into the country through infested hay and other agricultural commodities. Through the certified program, we are able to verify that the hay that will be produced from the field will be free of the list of weeds that are of concern in Kansas and other western states.”

Weeds on the national list of North American designated noxious weeds include absinth wormwood, Austrian fieldcress, black henbane, buffalobur, Canada thistle, common burdock, common crupina, common mullein, common tansy, common teasel, cutleaf teasel, Dame’s rocket, Dalmatian toadflax, diffuse knapweed, Dyer’s woad, field bindweed, field scabious, hoary alyssum, hoary cress, horsenettle, houndstongue, johnsongrass, jointed goatgrass, leafyspurge, meadow knapweed, medusahead, musk thistle, orange hawkweed, oxeye daisy, perennial pepperweed, perennial sowthistle, plumeless thistle, poison hemlock, puncturevine, purple loosestrife, quackgrass, rush skeletonweed, Russian knapweed, scentless chamomile, scotch thistle, sericea lespedeza, spotted knapweed, squarrose knapweed, St. Johnswort, sulfur cinquefoil, tall buttercup, tansy ragwort, vipers bugloss/blueweed, wild oats, wild proso millet, yellow hawkweed, yellow starthistle and yellow toadflax.

Burch says Rush skeletonweed, Tall buttercup, Dyer’s woad, Dalmatian toadflax, Canada thistle, Houndstongue are just a few noxious weeds that are commonly spread through hay crops.

“NAISMA has a regional list of 55 weeds and most states have a noxious weed or invasive plant list, but they vary from state to state,” Burch said. “Everyone should look up their local and state noxious weed list and get familiar with them so they can help stop the spread.”

Kansas has its own list of noxious weeds including bur ragweed, Canada thistle, field bindweed, hoary cress, johnsongrass, kudzu, leafy spurge, musk thistle, pignut, quackgrass, Russian knapweed and sericea lespedeza.

Marsh says two species of old world bluestems—caucasian and yellow old world blue stem—are currently being added to the national list. He says they have both been introduced throughout Kansas, but have not shown up in many other states.

“In this case, we’re trying to prevent sending the old world bluestems to other states,” Marsh explained. “As far as bringing noxious weed hay into Kansas, that’s kind of a lesser issue because Kansas doesn’t bring in much hay. We export a lot more hay than we import.”

Marsh says these plants are highly invasive introduced species that will crowd out the native range species, take over an area and create a monoculture of the old world bluestems that cattle will not eat, outside of early spring, making them undesirable species. He says they also eliminate a lot of the diversity in an area that they infest. Additionally, it has been found that with an infestation of either of these species, the insects, birds and other wildlife are greatly reduced.

Remove the weeds, add the value

Marsh says the biggest market for weed-free hay in Kansas is for mulch used for roadside projects for the department of transportation.

“They decided many years ago to voluntarily use only certified weed-free mulch on their projects,” Marsh said. “In other western states, the United States forestry departments require that any hay—such as forage for horses during trail rides—brought onto their lands must be certified weed-free to prevent any introductions of invasive or noxious species to national forests.”

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Additionally, Burch says this prevention tool limits the spread of noxious weeds in the back country and stops them from reaching watersheds. Burch says as more state and federal agencies require weed-free forage and gravel products, the demand is increasing.

“Using the NAISMA minimum standards and procedures it solidifies that everyone involved are working to produce quality forage and gravel,” Burch added.

Those who use the weed-free certification to fill in gaps in the market, open themselves up to new customers and buyers who desire hay in this specific niche.

“This program adds value because hay growers can sell the hay at a premium and it offers the additional value of not spreading weeds,” Marsh said. “The whole process is valuable to growers, their buyers, the environment and the agricultural community.”

Additionally, Burch says this is the only international standards program for these specific pathways and it promotes cooperation and upholds standards across jurisdictions.

Certifying hay in a world full of weeds

Marsh says to request a weed inspection, first contact a participating agency, such as a state department of agriculture, county government or crop improvement association that is contracted by the state or other government entity that regulates prohibited weeds. Fees are associated with the inspections and certified tags. Inspections must be done at least 10 days prior to harvesting. Marsh says inspectors will call and set up a time to visit the field.

“They walk around the field looking for any of the species on the list to be either blooming or gone to seed,” Marsh explained. “If they find some, they will restrict either a portion of the field or they’ll have to reject the entire field and not certify it. Any area that is not infested will be certified and they will give forms to the landowner. Bale tags identify the bales as certified.”

Marsh says the commodities most commonly inspected in Kansas are wheat and prairie grass or mixed forage grasses. Additionally he says many states, including Kansas, post a list of certified producers on their department of agriculture websites.

“Everybody who is certified has the option of being on the list or not,” he said. “So that way if anyone is in the market for certified weed-free, they can go to our website and find a producer.”

Marsh says the average number of acres certified weed-free each year in Kansas is 12,572. On average Kansas certifies 26,388 bales of hay and straw, but in 2019, they certified 44,030. The average acres per crop inspected in Kansas are 6,958 mixed forage grasses, 6,862 wheat straw, 286 brome grass, 91 rye, 91 sorghum, 65 barley, 62 triticale, 17 fescue, 14 alfalfa and 14 wheatgrass.

Weed-free certification is starting to become more desirable among buyers, and it is a trend that adds value to hay crops and restricts the movement of weeds that could devastate regions and choke out native species.

“This program provides a uniform international process for producers to grow, harvest, and promote weed-free forage and gravel products, while helping to stop the spread of invasive plants that destroy our environment,” Burch said.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].