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Fighting the foe of foxtail

Jul 15, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

A visiting relative said it was pretty, but that's not how I see it.

Hordeum jubatum.

It sounds like the name of latest addition to the no-fly list, or perhaps a primary target for an unmanned drone somewhere in the Middle East.

But to the western farmer rancher, it is a much more insidious threat.

Hordeum jubatum is known commonly as foxtail barley, but it has little relation to Grape Nuts. It is enjoying a bumper year across Fremont County and in neighboring agricultural areas.

The plant is not native to the Americas but enjoys our climate immensely, especially areas of the high plains along with eastern Oregon, Washington and nearly all of Idaho.

Foxtail, as we call it, originated in Siberia but became popular in English gardens in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the effervescent nature of its flowing seed head. It was brought across the Atlantic along with the aerial and aquatic pests starlings and carp in the early days of the 19th century, and these pests found haven in our little corner of the world, much to the detriment of native species forced to compete with these aggressive aliens.

Foxtail thrives in pastures, hay fields, along ditches and is a "pioneer species" that performs well in disturbed ground.

Most of the time it is too dry for foxtail to flourish but in wet years, or simply in a wet season, it can explode in unexpected volume.

The rain and snow we received back in April and May were a portend of foxtail's arrival in July and August, and the increased availability of water this year in the LeClair and Midvale irrigation systems added to the problem.

Foxtail loves water. The ditch often brings seeds from up above, eagerly looking for a place to grow.

A relative attending our recent Gasser family reunion commented on how pretty the grass was in one of our fields. I guess it's true that one man's meat is another man's poison. I saw nothing pretty about this invasive plant.

We have a couple of areas inundated by it this summer. A boggy area, with the same saturated strata that the Riverton Middle School was built on, has suffered the worst of this invasion. My only alternative at this point is to burn the seed heads or plow the entire area under and hope for better conditions next summer.

Most years we manage the foxtail by grazing the area heavily in May and early June. Before it heads out, foxtail is good forage for livestock, but once those blustery heads arrive it can become a major threat to dogs, cattle and, particularly, horses.

Foxtail is a dispore, meaning it distributes its seeds in a mechanical fashion by attaching onto a host or by floating in the wind and drifting to a likely spot to germinate. The attachment process is the danger to dogs and livestock. The seed can bore into an animal's hide or more likely, attach to its mouth or tongue and drive through tissue until it becomes inflamed.

Herbicides are available, but they must be applied in April or early May. Some have the disadvantage of killing alfalfa and some beneficial grass along with the foxtail.

While Hordeum jubatum gets the nod as the most-sinister of the imported ornamentals, another grass, this one from Europe, also poses a threat to western agriculture. Bromus madritensis, known as downy brome, foxtail brome, foxtail chess and occasionally as red brome, is familiar to most of us as a short-stemmed reddish brown grass that inhabits very dry areas. While it isn't nearly as dangerous to livestock, it is still an aggressive species that overwhelms native and beneficial grasses and can reduce a pasture or hayfield's effectiveness by taking over an area. It, too, originated in the English garden system where its reddish, fluffy appearance was valued by British horticultural hobbyists.

Much like a 1950s horror movie, this monster escaped as well and is now a pest across the arid West.

Not all plants bearing the moniker "foxtail" are detrimental. Wheat, barley and rye were once a form of foxtail growing wild in the regions of eastern Turkey, Syria and Iraq in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. Somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago people crossed pleasant-tasting wild grasses of the Triticea sub-family, creating these grains and transforming man's very existence in the process.

My father introduced a species of foxtail to wet areas of our farm back in the 1970s. This variety is known as Garrison Creeping Foxtail, or simply Garrison by most area farmers. Unlike its pesky namesake, it is a very beneficial plant. Garrison has the ability to set firm roots in soil that is otherwise too wet for anything except cattails or its fluffy, noxious cousin. In the process it dries up the area and produces a wide-leafed grass that is beneficial to livestock.

When my sister and brother-in-law finally sold the family farm a few years ago, the new owner, fresh from Colorado, was horrified by the abundance of Garrison in many areas and quickly killed most of it. In just a year the old nemesis, Hordeum jubatum, returned with a vengeance. The land once was again noxious and useless.

I'm off to plow under an area later this morning and then to burn off the heads below the house.

Nothing foxy about foxtail.

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