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Garth Brown |

Can you tell what part of this image fills my heart with happiness? It's the ragged stalks front and center. That's what burdock looks like this time of year when a flerd (flock + herd) of sheep and cows is finished with it. A fairly impressive population of burdock plants came with the farm when we purchased back at the end of 2009. In the eight growing seasons we've lived here the patches of burs have waxed and waned a little bit, but always presented an obnoxious thicket of velcro balls by autumn. This is the first year our animal numbers are finally high enough to begin reducing the prevalence of this plant. I've mowed it a few times over the years, but some places are not safe to drive a tractor and I really hate mowing things that animals would just as soon eat. I can't get past how dumb I feel about burning fossil fuels and putting wear and tear on my tractor and wasting my time for what is ultimately an aesthetic goal. If the ruminants that cohabit this patch of ground with me would like to mow, shouldn't I let them do all the hard work? I don't want to eradicate burdock completely since it serves several important ecological functions - insects love its flowers, tap roots pull minerals from deeper in the soil horizon than grasses can reach, it is palatable and nutritious at the time of year when grass tends to toward fiber and low digestibility, and it scavenges nitrogen efficiently - but I sure won't mind if there's less of it around.

Here's a photo of burdock the cattle haven't hit yet. Look behind it on the right side of the image. See the yellow?

The yellow there is another taprooted forb that I am even happier to see the cattle devour with gusto - wild parsnip. Parsnip sap can cause photophytodermatitis, which in plain English means it gives you a nasty rash when the sap gets on skin that is exposed to sun. I find it interesting that the cattle don't seem to suffer any ill effects from eating parsnip. Where I would have blisters all over my hands and arms from picking the leaves off parsnip plants, they just keep munching away. I haven't seen any welts on their noses where surely some sap and sunlight both land simultaneously. Perhaps the steady sheen of moisture that cattle keep on their snouts is protective against this type of exposure... I have read of sheep becoming photosensitive from eating large volumes of certain plants, but have yet to observe it happening to my flock.

And here's proof that the cattle like parsnip leaves. Yay cows! Keep up the good work!


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