Weed Identification for Berks Co. 4-H Sheep Club

5/19/2012 10:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

BOYERTOWN, Pa. — Berks County 4-H members specializing in working with sheep visited the farm of George and Beth Vamvakias in Boyertown, Pa., on May 8 for a hands-on weed identification exercise.

The Berks County Penn State Extension sponsored the event geared toward young ones, with Mena Hautau as the Extension educator in charge.

Originally, the exercise was intended as a pasture walk, but due to rain, the organizers and attendees improvised, with the children examining 10 different weed specimens in the garage of the Vamvakias family, showing the plants laid down on open pages of old newspapers.

The students, parents and other sheep farmers broke into four groups, picking up and assessing the weeds with the help of textbooks with pictures to assist in identifying the varying plants.

Wild mustard, buttercup, buckhorn plantain, oxeye daisy, dandelion, multiflora rose, wild garlic, red sorrel, curly dock and common mullein were the examples the children assessed through visuals and texture by touching the freshly uprooted weeds.

The challenge took on the title, “Name That Weed.” Hautau versed the participants in characteristics like whether weeds are annuals, perennials or biennials.

She pointed out that the first specimen, wild mustard, or what is sometimes called “yellow rocket,” behaves as a winter annual, but it’s something sheep generally don’t like to eat. The second specimen, with its soft yellow petals, buttercup, is toxic and grows from bulbs under the soil.

“Sheep know it’s not palatable, so they don’t want to eat it,” Hautau said.

Most of the weeds on display were perennials known for also reproducing by seed.

Hautau mentioned that red sorrel is pretty each autumn, and common mullein bears big stalks with little yellow flowers on them, once the blooms have developed. She added that in history, Native Americans lined their moccasins with mullein because of the plant’s leaves being so soft and plush.

Of all the weeds identified, Hautau said sheep do seem to like eating dandelion when it’s vegetative, before it starts shooting flowers. And they are known to not necessarily eat multiflora rose in full, but they’ll often trim it back with their gnawing.

After their discussions of identifying the weeds, Hautau reminded her audience that the best pastures are ones where well-focused attention is given to fertilization, mowing, correct grazing procedures and if absolutely necessary in extreme situations, application of herbicides.

“The use of herbicides is there if you have very severe infestations — something aggressive like Canadian thistle,” Hautau said.

And for grazing, “Leaving some residual (blade) to the grass is important — not letting the sheep bite it to the ground,” Hautau said.

For example, if letting sheep chew down grass to 3 or 4 inches, be sure to move them to another plot of pasture for a time, as it’s important for grass to have a chance to rest.

A pasture will thrive best if serious grazing management of the animals is practiced. It is important not to just do continuous grazing but to subdivide the area instead, so that the grass can have a hiatus before being chewed down again.

“Doing a good job of managing the grass and edible plants that are there and not over-abusing pastures” is something Hautau stressed that people must understand, for best use of grazing land.

“Animals certainly can do a lot of good for ground,” Hautau said. “We can use animal power to control weeds and actually renew grasslands. They’re sometimes more effective than what we can do trying to get into certain spaces with machinery.”

To find out more, contact Mena Hautau at 610-378-1327.

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