Even Weeds Serve a Purpose

Husker Home Place

No farmer will say that weeds are a good thing, but they serve a purpose in protecting the soil.

Published on: February 5, 2013
Farmers and ranchers spend millions of dollars each year trying to get rid of those pesky weeds. In the old days, farmers plowed, burned, chopped and dug out every weed they could from their fields and pastures. I personally have spent thousands of hours in the seat of a tractor pulling a cultivator, or walking miles upon miles of soybean rows, carrying a corn knife to chop velvet leaf by hand. Farmers have been known to chop a cocklebur plant from a corn field, take it to the field edge and burn it, to prevent it from going to seed.

This dislike of weeds by farmers is nothing short of an obsession. And, because of what we know about how weeds sap moisture from crops, the war on weeds takes place for good reason. Because we’ve been trying to get rid of weeds for so long, they have become adaptable to almost any measure we’ve taken to destroy them. They are true survivors.

ANCIENT PLANTS: Scouring rush has been around for 300 million years, and it probably will be around for a lot longer.
ANCIENT PLANTS: Scouring rush has been around for 300 million years, and it probably will be around for a lot longer.

For instance, scouring rush has been around for at least 300 million years, a remnant from ancient days. One story I’ve read says that because of the high silica content in the stems of this plant, early Americans planted it next to streams along with soapwort, using the silica-filled stems of the rush and the sudsy roots of soapwort to scrub pots and pans. Native Americans supposedly used the plant to stop bleeding, and found it to be an effective diuretic.

Today, some farmers have noticed growing spots of scouring rush in their row crop fields, causing some minor yield losses in very specific areas. Scouring rush isn’t impacted by many herbicides, so it has thrived in wetter fields where tillage hasn’t been used in many seasons.

Because of examples like this, it is no wonder that we are now attending weed resistance field days, dealing with these issues and a wide variety of challenging weeds. As one researcher wisely noted at such a field day last summer in David City, weeds have been adapting to human efforts to kill them for thousands of years. They are even adaptive to cultural practices like crop rotations and cultivation as these methods were employed in the same fields for many years.

We need to understand that weeds serve a purpose. That purpose isn’t to cost farmers more money or increase the amount of gray hair on our heads. It isn’t to keep us up at night. Mother Nature has a more practical purpose in mind, and that is simple ground cover. Exposed soil erodes from water and wind. That’s why after some calamity strips the soil clear of residue, weeds are often the first plants to grow back. Like nature’s own cover crops, they are holding precious topsoil in place.

What is considered a weed depends on your perspective and the location of the plants. Corn can be a weed in a soybean field. Rye is certainly a weed in a winter wheat field. Cedar trees are great when they are growing in a shelterbelt or windbreak, but they are weeds when they are choking grazing plants in a pasture.

I have known a few organic gardeners who allowed weeds to grow in specific areas of their market gardens, because the weeds served as a “catch area” for insects that might have otherwise destroyed valuable garden crops.

I really have no moral to my story, other than to realize that weeds are around for a reason. We will never conquer them completely, nor should we. Our purpose is best served if we employ as many different tools as possible to keep them under control, so our crops are not hindered by overly abundant populations of weed plants that have been survivors for thousands of years.

Be sure to watch www.nebraskafarmer.com and read our February print issue of Nebraska Farmer for news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at www.DatelineDrought.com.