Community Agriculture Alliance: Weeds in hay — a cautionary tale | SteamboatToday.com

Community Agriculture Alliance: Weeds in hay — a cautionary tale

Todd Hagenbuch/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Steamboat Pilot and Today has told the tale of leafy spurge and its impact on the Yampa Valley. Now spreading from an area just west of Hayden down to the Utah state line, this invasive plant spreads quickly and is challenging, at best, to get control of.

For decades, weed managers, property managers and property owners tried to control it before it became widespread, and we now have an infestation that will take a ton of research and more than a million dollars to conquer. However, the bigger question is, how did the infestation start, and what can we learn form it?

Conventional wisdom says the initial leafy spurge plants were introduced to the area via hay that was brought in from an out-of-state supplier. I've heard it said that the hay was brought in by hunters for their horses. Others have said a rancher brought it in to feed cattle. 

Either way, the source of the contamination appears to have been hay brought in from an outside area. Hay that was innocently brought in for a legitimate purpose has now forever changed our local landscape and has had detrimental effects on our natural environment.

One of the ways state and federal governments have helped control situations like this is by requiring hunters to use only certified weed-free hay on public land. Certified hay undergoes an inspection before being cut to assure buyers that no noxious weeds were present in the field at the time of cutting and baling; a special color of twine denotes that a bale of hay came from a certified field. 

Wildlife officers or forest rangers will check hunting camps to make sure horse owners are using certified weed free hay in an effort to stop the spread of noxious weeds.

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While public lands mangers have the ability to inspect hay for weed-free certification at hunting camps, no such process exists for inspecting hay that is coming into the area for livestock consumption on private ground. 

In drought years, when hay supplies locally are stretched past capacity, ranchers often look to other areas to bring in affordable, supplemental feed. This year, I know of hay that has been brought in from as far as South Dakota in an effort to provide much-needed forage for animals this winter.

Because most of the hay being brought in from out-of-area suppliers is not certified weed-free, extra precautions must be taken to reduce the risk of starting a new noxious weed outbreak. 

Store the purchased hay in an area that can easily be monitored for new weeds next year, preferably near the edge of a meadow and not in the middle to keep unwanted weeds from spreading. Make sure that storage and feeding take place in concentrated areas that can be monitored and weeds controlled, and make sure these areas won't have running water in them in the spring which can disperse seeds prior to germination.

Remember, if you move hay, it is your responsibility to make sure you are not spreading noxious weeds. You don't want to be the one blamed for a weed infestation that forever changes the local landscape and costs a community countless time and money to fight.

Todd Hagenbuch is the director and an agriculture agent with Colorado State University Extension office. 

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