The leafy spurge that began showing up two generations ago still poses a threat to Lynn Ballagh's family ranch, near Burwell, NE.
Infested fragile crop ground has since returned to grass, but leafy spurge hangs on like a bull-rider. Ballagh is convinced that going after spurge with the same tenacity is the only way to achieve control.
"Prevention goes hand-in-hand with growing good grass and optimizing herd performance," says the 46-year-old rancher. "Scouting and treating pastures every year helps avoid shortfalls on the beef side of our business."
Grass and beef are the chief crops at the Ballagh Ranch, where 500 Angus cow-calf pairs and 300 custom-grazed stockers roam about 10,000 pasture acres. Ballagh's wife, Amy, and their children Aaron, Ryan, Devyn and Kellen, help maintain native pastures comprised mostly of big and little bluestem, switchgrass, gamagrass and sandlove grass. A few meadows provide winter feed.
Since 1946, the genetic base of the herd has been comprised of Angus and Simmental stock. Ballagh prefers these breeds' traits for milk production, disposition and longevity.
Jorgensen Farms, near Winner, SD, provides the bulk of Ballagh's sires. Breeding twice a year doubles the return on each bull, spreads the calving workload and provides more marketing flexibility.
Their deep-body, high-capacity cows typically weigh about 1,250 pounds, or 200 pounds heavier than those Ballagh ran two decades ago. Thus, he says, it is important to get the most out of their pastures.
In addition to leafy spurge, Canada thistle, ragweed, goldenrod, horsenettle and cedar trees pose the biggest threats to grass production.
In mid-June each of the last two years, Ballagh aerially applied two quarts of Grazon P+D herbicide per acre to treat a moderate mix of broadleaf weeds. He estimates control at nearly 100% for the season.
To prevent leafy spurge from spreading and really cutting into grass production, Ballagh tracks the weed with marking posts. For the past five years, he has spot-applied Tordon 22K herbicide at the rate of one quart per acre using a four-wheeler and hired aerial broadcast applications where necessary. Those treatments typically go on in mid-September. He also is experimenting with flea beetles.
"Leafy spurge is easier to track and treat with a hand sprayer in small pastures," Ballagh says. "We have eliminated some spots completely with follow-up treatments over a two- or three-year period. In 500 acres of hills, however, it is easy to miss a few weeds. If that happens, even a small patch can spread very quickly."
Ballagh monitors a number of variables, including soil conditions, temperature and humidity, to ensure that he gets the most value from his herbicide treatments.
"In some places where spurge once choked out forage completely, we have replaced it pound-for-pound with grass," he notes. In one half-section, he increased his carrying capacity by 20%, to 40 pairs. That is good news, whether his own cattle graze on it, or if he charges $150 per pair for five months of custom grazing.
Overall, the additional grass has helped increase stocking rates to 12 acres per pair on the hills and eight acres per pair in the flats and low ground. So, while his spurge treatments are on going, Ballagh continues to grow his herd.
"The biggest advantage we see with pasture improvement is the increased carrying capacity," Ballagh says. "We will continue with our pasture management plan, and seek new ways to fine-tune it."