The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Milkweed Massacre

June 5th, 2013 · 10 Comments · Posted in farming, Sustainability

Milkweed plants lying dead in the pasture

Milkweed plants lying dead in the pasture

All you honey bee and monarch butterfly lovers out there are going to hate me when you learn that I’ve spent the last two days slashing away and slaying milkweed plants in our upper pasture. Believe me, 10 acres have never looked so huge as when you attempt to undo a milkweed infestation on them.

Thousands and thousands of milkweeds. Thousands and thousands of swings with the scythe.

The carnage is awful. My scythe leaves a a milky trail of gore in its wake.

As much as monarch butterflies love milkweed–and heaven knows we don’t want to make any more trouble for the beleaguered monarch–animals won’t eat the plant once it grows beyond a tender shoot. The sap of the milkweed is noxious to livestock. Well, we are way beyond tender shoot, and even if we weren’t, I don’t own the animals yet to graze off those 10 acres. We had hoped to make hay from those pastures, but the hay is no good if it’s full of milkweed.

So what we have is an infestation of milkweed that won’t stop until it’s taken over the whole pasture.

See, milkweed isn’t any ordinary plant. It’s like something from outer space. What you see above the ground–the stem, the leaves, the flowers and eventually those strange, tear drop-shaped seed pods–are just the outer manifestations of milkweed colonies that live below the surface and spread via rhizomes, or filaments that wander this way and that through the soil. Slicing the stem at the surface just signals the colony below to send up more shoots. The only way to kill the subterranean host is to continuously destroy the above-ground portion of the plant, eventually starving the colony to death.

Did I say “only” way? Let me amend that. Around here, in industrial agriculture circles, a chemical solution would be applied. The fields would be sprayed with an herbicide that kills the milkweed–along with a lot of other plant species. That’s exactly how these fields were treated before I arrived on the scene.

Ironically, you might say our current milkweed problem is the end result of that very brand of chemical agriculture typically practiced in dairy country here in Upstate New York. There is little thought given to building healthy soil. Chemicals of various sorts are deployed to artificially create fertility, and to deal with any pest problems that might occur. Consequently, there is a deficiency of life-sustaining organic matter in the soil. Plant-friendly microbes and other members of the soil ecology that thrive on organic matter are instead destroyed by toxins. Until such a barren landscape is rejuvenated by grazing livestock, it becomes the perfect stomping ground for weeds like milkweed.

That’s why milkweed in our part of the country is regarded as a scourge. You don’t want to see it popping up in your fields. The best place for it is safely isolated along the roads and in vacant lots where the monarchs can feed on it to their hearts’ content.

Guess what? I’ve got a lot more acres out there to tend to yet. And to think, there was a time when I actually planted milkweed in our school garden hoping it would grow.

For more information on why milkweed poses such a problem for the grass farmer, read this fascinating piece [PDF] published by The Nature Instute.

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  • Debbie Dekleva

    So, we BUY milkweed pods. If it is really that full of milkweed, a field like yours can gross about $1,000/ acre. You REALLY want to get rid of it? Contact us!

  • Ed Bruske

    Debbie, you’d have to pay me a lot more than $1,000 to harvest an acre of milkweed pods. But thanks for the offer.

  • Debbie Dekleva

    Seriously? How much profit do you make an acre? What price would make it a competitve offer?

  • Cristina

    Obviously, your interests lie elsewhere. However, I would agree on the issue that at some point, Milkweed must be renewed, cared for if it is to be truly useful for the Monarch and other insects it feeds.
    Again, obviously, that is not your interest either.

  • Ed Bruske

    Debbie, now you’re getting argumentative. We are not in the milkweed business and have no desire to be.

  • Ed Bruske

    Hi, Cristina. We have great sympathy for the monarch. I have loved butterflies since I was a kid. We have visited the monarch reserves in Mexico. We are distressed over what is happening to their habitat there. But milkweed simply does not mix with what we are doing now, raising livestock on pasture. We’ll leave it to others to raise the milkweed.

  • Debbie Dekleva

    No interest in being argumentative. Our business needs milkweed. We are trying to figure out what price you could get per acre for milkweed production that would persuade you to let it co-exist with your cattle operation. People who run cattle operations are our best partners since the cattle eat everything BUT the milkweed. I meant no offense.

  • Sandy

    gee Ed it sounds like a win win win situation to me! I am curious tho what Debbie uses the milkweed pods for *:O)

  • Ed Bruske

    It might work better in Nebraska on the wide open prairie, Sandy. Here, an acre of grass is worth around $600 in hay, plus the meat or dairy value of any livestock I raise on it. So it’s not clear at all that milkweed represents a profit, and it cannot be contained, so having it in the pasture poses a definite risk in addition to the time and labor involved harvesting the pods. I am still waiting for Debbie to provide a model grass farm where milkweed has been successfully incorporated into a pastured livestock operation.

  • Debbie Dekleva

    Sorry, Ed. I misunderstood and thought you wanted to discuss via email. Upstate New York is actually where we have picked milkweed pods in pastures that support dairy cows. I believe you have been in discussion with Gary Stell, who has been our Wild Collection Point in Auburn, NY the past five years. He has the hands on experience in your area. As far as scientific documentation, I have none.
    Sandy, you can check out our milkweed mission of expanding the Monarch Flyway and products available at:
    Ed, we would love for you to consider a NEW way of milkweed management that would benefit everyone, but we understand your concerns and respect your operation.
    As you may have gathered from Gary, the practice you are currently employing to get rid of your milkweed might be part of the reason it is expanding. Grazing cattle on the field is a better way to control it.
    Give it some thought. You have my email. We would love to work with you, but we understand your position.