Lafayette County agent controls the vicious vine with sheep

CATEGORY: Lafayette County

AUTHOR: CASTEN

Lafayette County agent controls the vicious vine with sheep

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Compared to kudzu, Godzilla’s a wimp.

A very real monster from Japan, the ubiquitous green vine covers millions of acres of southern landscape, stunting and even killing valuable tree crops. Thanks to lobbying from the Lafayette County Forestry Association, kudzu’s overachieving nature earned it a noxious weed designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year, and eradication research is now being funded on many fronts.

Gentle soldiers in the kudzu war

Lafayette County extension agent Dickie Rhea, though, has attacked the devastating legume with the mildest of soldiers – sheep.

“Kudzu was introduced to the South as a grazing crop … and to try to control some of the erosion,” Rhea said. “It is a high-protein forage and was used to replace pastures that had really gotten poor.”

Given that history, it makes sense to use grazing animals to control the ambitious vine.

For three years, Rhea has had eight ewes on a five-acre plot of Mississipi Forestry Commission land. The woolly beasts graze the wooded, brushy area from May through September.

The sheep are having an obvious impact on growth. Kudzu and other undesirable vegetation in the sheep paddocks are much thinner than on land just across the fence.

“Stocking about two (sheep) per acre will keep kudzu under control,” Rhea said, suggesting that grazing and timber could co-exist indefinitely. “With normal stocking rates (four sheep per acre) we can have it cleaned up in eight weeks.”

Rhea noted, however, that it may take repeated heavy grazing to kill kudzu outright. The massive roots on old growths of the vine provide a reserve of energy that will keep the plants alive for several years.

Other grazing animals also control kudzu well, but cows, goats and horses all have a taste for infant pine trees, making sheep the graziers of choice on regenerating timberland.

Because their wool is an insulator and because they are a favorite target of marauding mobs of dogs, though, sheep do require substantial net wire fences instead of inexpensive electric ones.

Federal problem, federal help

Retired forester Gerald Inmon and Oxford merchant Will Lewis were two of the sparkplugs for having kudzu declared a noxious weed.

“There’s 7 million acres covered in kudzu right now, and it’s growing at a rate of 120,000 more acres every year,” Inmon said. “It’s like a vegetative form of cancer.”

Inmon, Lewis and other members of the Lafayette County Forestry Association heard a presentation that described the staggering damage that kudzu can do to trees, from new seedlings to mature stands.

“It was getting bad; we just didn’t know how bad,” Inmon said. “We took it upon ourselves … to do something about it.”

The forest owners enlisted the help of Congressman Roger Wicker and Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, and nearly 50 years after it quit promoting kudzu, the USDA finally recognized the once-lauded plant as a weed.

The result has been funding for a number of eradication research programs, including a $50,000 grant to Mississippi State University. Other funded projects include chemical herbicide studies and research of insect enemies of kudzu.

“The soybean looper worm is very efficient at eating kudzu,” Inmon said. “Then before he becomes a moth and goes off and eats soybeans, he’s injected with a parasitic wasp that kills him.”

“The idea of this would be to bring all this research – biological, chemical, and other – together,” Lewis said. “Grazing, burning and mowing can all make it easier to get results with biological or chemical methods.”

Local experimentation

Even with federal funding for eradication research, though, the Lafayette Countians decided to conduct some of their own trials.

“We wanted to experiment with some biological controls. Chemicals have their place, but they’re expensive and can be dangerous,” Inmon said. “It made sense to try other methods.”

Rhea’s demonstration project resulted from a partnership with the Mississippi Forestry Commission. Senior forestry volunteers built the net-wire fence that keeps the sheep in and predators out (so far).

The idea of dual-purpose land – supporting both timber and grazing – is growing in popularity.

“There’s a whole movement called ‘agroforestry’ to do some of these kinds of things,” Rhea said. “The cost of weed control in timber stands is sometimes prohibitive, and this is an area where you can move in with some livestock and not only eat some of the weeds down, but tramp some of them down.”

And the ruminants offer one other advantage over “conventional” methods of weed control: Mowers, discs and chemical herbicides don’t furnish their own replacements.

Ewe can bet on it.FACTBOX: Kudzu was introduced to the United States in 1876 as part of the Japanese exhibit at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition. It was used mostly as an ornamental plant until the early 1920s, when its reputation as a forage crop and a remedy for the erosion that plagued the South.

The Soil Conservation Service began promoting kudzu during the Great Depression, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted thousands of eroded acres with the vine. Farmers were paid as much as $8.00 per acre to plant kudzu during the 1940s.

By the 1950s people were beginning to recognize that the kudzu genie was out of the bottle. The vine’s most outstanding quality – its prodigious growth rate – was also its greatest drawback. Unchecked, it covers farm equipment, buildings and fences. As it climbs poles and wraps itself around electric wires, it partially grounds the wires, robbing the lines of electricity.

The greatest impact of kudzu is on timber. The “mile-a-minute” vines (which can actually grow as much as a foot per day) climbs trees and competes with them for sunshine, slowly starving the trees to death.

Seven million acres of the South are under kudzu, and it takes over another 120,000 acres each year.