Once known for its melons, potatoes and sugar beets — not to mention the sheer variety of its abundant food crops — Colorado increasingly has a reputation for something else: weeds.

Once known for its melons, potatoes and sugar beets — not to mention the sheer variety of its abundant food crops — Colorado increasingly has a reputation for something else: weeds.

The state’s pioneering efforts to legalize production of marijuana and hemp have obviously made headlines, but so has a thriving native plant that takes virtually no effort to grow but all kinds of effort to successfully subdue: the tumbleweed.

Numerous national and international media outlets have covered the Eastern Plains epidemic over the past year, including National Geographic and CNN. The reports recount how tumbleweeds have buried cars and even houses and effectively closed roadways, adding to the dangerous travel conditions caused by bouts of blowing dust. Multiple counties in southeastern Colorado, including Pueblo and Crowley, have declared a tumbleweed “state of emergency” in hopes of getting assistance from the state to deal with the invasion. County governments are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to clear roads.

Tumbleweeds, along with dust storms and tensions over increasingly limited water supplies, are unwanted keepsakes left over from a severe drought that has now stretched to 12 years in some places, said Sharon Pattee, who was named the new executive director of the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts in March following a long career as a CACD board member and manager of the Upper Arkansas Watershed conservation district.

“My farm has never looked worse,” she said of the small property where she lives and works and raises hay near Woodland Park. “I’m in survival mode to keep what I have alive. I’ve already lost a lot of brome due to the drought. This wind we’ve had keeps sucking moisture out of everything.”
Calling herself a “weed warrior,” Pattee noted that hay shortages and longer transports have allowed weed seeds to spread extensively between geographic regions in recent years. In dire situations, some farmers have even turned to the Russian thistle and kochia plants that eventually turn into tumbleweeds for a source of forage.

“It’s a native plant, so it’s not a noxious weed, but I call it an obnoxious weed,” she said.

“Stock will eat in the earlier stages,” she acknowledged, noting that some farmers have put it up for hay. “It’s not a practice most of us would encourage,” she noted with a wry chuckle.

Still, in normal years, livestock help to keep the weeds in check, observed Scott Smith, a specialist with the Cheyenne County Natural Resource Conservation Service at Cheyenne Wells.

“A lot of the tumbleweeds came off of rangeland last year,” he said. “The plants grew up overnight, and our livestock didn’t have a chance to keep them down. In fact, now most of the livestock are gone.”

Larry Stebbins, the director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens in Colorado Springs and a lifelong gardener, said the weeds reflect the climate’s increasing variability, which has included sudden, flooding downpours and harsh hailstorms as well as parching stretches devoid of rain.

“When you have periods of extreme moisture and then extreme drought, you’re going to have these weeds grow quickly and then dry out,” he said at the Harlan Wolfe Ranch community garden where he was weeding a bed of arugula greens recently. “It’s totally a reflection of climate variability.”

Weeds, the bane of every gardener, are always more adapted to tough soils and environments than edible plants, he noted. “Weeds photosynthesize more efficiently than our domestic plants and that’s why they can grow fast and outcompete the plants around them,” he said.

Ron Meyer, Colorado State University area agronomist in Burlington said the tumbleweed has “the best drought tolerance I’ve seen in a plant.”
“It needs an open canopy to grow but it doesn’t take much moisture to germinate. Then it gets bunched up along fences and now it’s a fire hazard,” he said.

Farmers, dogged by crop failures and often trying to avoid extra fieldwork or expense, do have the option of applying 2,4-D to bare fields, he said, although there is also concern about control options becoming more limited in the future.

“Having a herbicide resistant tumbleweed is pretty bad,” said CSU extension agronomist Jerry Johnson, referring to the Roundup resistant kochia weeds that are sprouting up across the U.S. “Either you learn to control them or you learn to live with them.”

A number of new crops resistant to other herbicides besides glyphosate (including dicamba and 2,4-D) are currently in the developmental pipeline. “That’s where stewardship programs become very important,” said Rick Novak, executive director of the Colorado Seed Trade Association.

Fighting the weeds

Certified seed grower Burl Scherler confirmed that last year he probably grew more tumbleweeds than wheat at his farm north of Brandon. He estimated that he harvested 20 percent of his wheat acreage at yields that topped out at 10 bushels to the acre.

Just up the road from his farm on the south end of Cheyenne County, the tumbleweeds were so thick in some places it was impossible to distinguish the roadway from the ditch, said Chris Tallman, a neighboring farmer.

Things are looking better in the area this year, Scherler explained, while hosting a recent wheat variety tour. He gestured across the road from the test plot to a field where he’d applied Authority herbicide at a cost of $10 an acre back in March. Made from a different chemistry than glyphosate or 2,4-D, the product is touted as a way to reduce herbicide resistance.
“It’s still pretty clean,” he said of the field. “We might have to put a little Roundup on it later, but we’re real pleased with it.”

Gathered around the test plot, local farmers joked that with few trees or structures to stop the blowing tumbleweeds, they’d all gone to Crowley County, an area so plagued by massive weed piles the road maintenance crew there was inspired to cobble together a tumbleweed harvesting and grinding machine affectionately named “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

But as remnants of last year’s bumper crop tumble far and wide, distributing as many as 250,000 seeds from a single large plant, it is sewing the seeds for more problems ahead.

“We might better the weed one year, but the next year Mother Nature betters us,” said Smith, a board member for the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association. “In the long run, she’s going to win. We’re just putting band-aides on it.”

Pattee, from the state’s conservation association office, believes part of what has fed problems with runaway tumbleweeds and blowing dirt is a lack of understanding of proper land stewardship.

“Most farmers and ranchers are very good stewards of the land,” she said. “But we also have a lot of new people to this scene, including the ranchettes and small hobby farmers.”

Earlier this year, her organization successfully backed a measure at the state legislature that allows county commissioners to issue letters of reprimand to landowners who allow blinding dust to escape from their fields.