With 160 acres here, a significant part of what we do is taking care of the land. Most of it -- about 140 acres -- is kept in pasture for the horses, while the rest has the barns, animal cottages and other buildings on it. But with that much land, there is a lot of work to ensure healthy soils and healthy grasses. We've always wanted to be good stewards of the land, and that means making continued investments in caring for it. I just had our county extension agent out here yesterday to help us with a pasture grass "census," soil analysis, and recommendations for improving our forage quality.
Our biggest challenge is noxious weeds, which is a huge problem not just here in Montana but across the Rocky Mountain West. (See Montana's noxious weeds list here.) As rich and thick as much of our grass is, these noxious weeds still crop up in our fields, with persistent, deep root structures and seeds blown in on the wind. Although "integrated weed management" is the preferred approach -- using a combination of herbicides, biological control (beneficial insects targeted for specific weeds), grazing, and mechanical means (mowing and pulling) -- it is much more difficult to achieve in practice. Different weeds respond to different control methods, and they also come up at different times, all of which complicates efforts to get rid of them.
We use all those "tools" in the integrated weed management toolbox, with varying degrees of success, but at the end of the day we still need to have the fields sprayed to control the worst weeds. The three big noxious weeds for us are leafy spurge, knapweed, and Dalmatian toadflax.
We are also now dealing with a nasty, invasive plant called cheatgrass, which is actually a member of the bromegrass family. As a grass, this means a different approach to controlling it than the noxious weeds -- including a different herbicide, which happens to kill your other brome grasses! As one report says, "Cheatgrass invades rangelands, pastures, prairies, and other open areas. Cheatgrass has the potential to completely alter the ecosystems it invades. It can completely replace native vegetation and change fire regimes." Cheatgrass also has barbs which are a painful problem for dogs as well as livestock. So for right now we are mowing the cheatgrass stands and then we will spray those sites in the fall, which is the optimum time.
For the past several days our weed expert, Jeff Campbell of Blackfoot Weed Control in Seeley Lake, Montana, has been at the ranch spraying the pastures. I took the photo above of Jeff on his ATV spraying in one of our paddocks at the northeast corner of the ranch this morning. Jeff is a retired forester with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, so we know we've got one really knowledgeable guy helping us take care of this problem!
When I took that photo of Jeff, I was standing right next to this fencepost:
That field looks lush, doesn't it?
But now look at ground level, and what you see in this one spot is a nice, thick patch of young toadflax:
And by the way, we had sprayed the entire property last year, too. That's why they call these weeds "noxious" and "invasive." You can't ever let up.
As much as we don't like applying the herbicides -- and it means taking the horses off the pastures for days -- there isn't much choice. We had long-time supporters of the sanctuary staying at the ranch last weekend, and they own an organic lawn care business in Washington state. We asked them if there was any way we could manage these weeds using organic methods. Their immediate answer: "No. Not for these kinds of noxious weeds, and not for a property this size." They thought if we had 5 or maybe 10 acres we might be able to stay on top of it using organic methods, but it would be incredibly labor-intensive and we couldn't "scale up" to cover the rest of the ranch.
Still, our long-term goal is to minimize the use of herbicides and convert as much of the ranch as possible to organic pasture management.