Burdock In Autumn: Thoughts On Annoying Plants and Regenerative Farming

Early fall is the time of year when our cattle wear crowns of burdock. Great big gaudy gobs of it. As I mentioned recently, grass fed beef is a bit of misnomer, since we’re actually aiming for a more diverse diet consisting grasses and a wide variety of leafy pasture plants that aren’t technically grasses. Burdock is a plant found on disturbed ground and along the margins of our fields. At this time of year it is evident when the cattle have found a patch of burdock because pieces of it are stuck all over them.

Burdock in the Pasture

Burdock is a highly nutritious pasture plant. It’s main stalk becomes coarse and inedible as the summer progresses, but the leaves remain palatable all season long. With its deep tap root the plant is able to extract minerals from deep in the soil profile. I have removed thick burdock roots more than two feet long.

In several cultures, spanning from Japan all the way to our local Amish herbalists, burdock roots, leaves, and seeds all find use in human foods, medicines, and salves. I hesitate to use the language of hype and call anything a superfood, but I’ll at least state that burdock is a desirable plant for humans and for the livestock and wildlife on our farm.

Our chickens nibble at it on pasture, but turkeys are especially fond of the leaves and methodically peck away until the plant is stripped down to the bare stalk. Wild turkeys also eat the seeds during the winter. Our farm turkeys don’t eat the seeds, but I think that is because the seeds require a lot of work, so the turkeys turn to it only after they’ve eaten all the easy food. We’ve noticed that our cattle love burdock and will graze it from early spring through the fall.

Grass fed beef cattle grazing spring flush grass and burdock in May.
The beef cattle herd grazing burdock and grass in mid-May when the pastures are in their explosive early growth flush. This is the pure leafy phase before any seed heads begin to develop.

The Hook

But all is not peace and love with burdock. They spread their seeds with burrs. As much as I try to appreciate the plant, the omnipresent burrs test the limits of my enthusiasm.

According to the official company history, burdock inspired the invention of Velcro. Upon close inspection, this makes sense. Each of the seed pods is covered in a dense spherical array of fine spines with hooked ends. Once the seeds reach maturity, the plants wall off the connection to the burr, priming it to be ready to detach. The slightest contact with a hairy beast or a clothed human allows the barbs to hook on and hitch a ride.

Using grass fed beef cattle to graze the grass and weeds in a corral.
Burdock grows well in disturbed areas, like this corral. Rachel moved the cattle through the corral this weekend to mow down the plants in and around it. Along the way they picked up a lot of burrs, as displayed here.

Starting in September and especially during October and November, the burrs are just itching to snag the unwary passer by. Our cattle wear crowns of burdock on their heads, often with a few extra baubles stuck to their ears. The switch end of their tails can become knotted clubs of burrs. They graze serenely, apparently unaware or unconcerned that they are carrying clusters of seed pods.

I don’t actually hate the burrs. Perhaps if I had a flock of wool sheep I would, since it doesn’t take much to ruin the value of a fleece. But I can’t find enough generosity in my heart to love them either.

The burrs are just pesky. When I wander into a patch of tall grass and brush, no matter how careful I am, I leave with burrs attached to my clothes. They are most adept at clinging tightly to my wool flannel work jacket or any knit garment. And then there’s the delayed aggravation when some of them make their way through a load of laundry. The seed head falls apart and the spines are dispersed among all the clothing. It seems that socks and the elastic waistbands of underwear are the ideal places for a few errant spines to hide out, creating a slowly building annoyance of abrasion.

Burdock and Invasion

Burdock is one of many plants that cause me to reflect on the messy realities of living and farming in a complicated world. Burdock is certainly an invasive species in the Western Hemisphere. It arrived very early with Europeans, either in hay for livestock feed or entangled in the hair of a cow or the wool of a sheep. Those clever little burrs allowed it to opportunistically jump an ocean and then to spread through a new continent.

Ag colleges and farming publications dutifully publish information on controlling burdock. They’ll tell farmers when and how often to mow it and whether it should be sprayed with certain types of herbicides. Their advice is to kill, kill, kill.

At this point, there is no chance of extirpating burdock. It is firmly ensconced throughout North America. For that matter, we’ll never roll back clover, kudzu, earthworms, honeybees (OK, well it seems we just might manage to kill off the honeybees), or all the other invasive plants and animals. Some invasives we universally love (clover), some we universally hate (kudzu). But they’ve settled here and made it their home. If we were to remove them now, after they’ve achieved an equilibrium in the environment, we’d surely create new ripples of imbalance and cascade unintended consequences. They have become the native state, whether we like it or not. At some future point there may be another invasive that threatens the place burdock occupies in the ecosystem.

When I hear people talk about fighting invasive plants, there’s always an implicit understanding that invasives are bad and natives are good. The lines are clearly drawn, and it is our job as good farmers or as good citizens to battle the invaders.

I wonder at the persistence of talk about invasives while the circumstances seem to indicate that any effort will have a low probability of success. And I question the appropriateness of the effort. Sure, I support work to prevent the careless introduction of novel species. But once they are established? I’m not so sure.

Once when selling at a farmers market I met an earnest group of volunteers from a major corporation. They had been recruited to remove invasive weeds from a public space. The weeds were dutifully pulled and stuffed into paper bags to be hauled to the town’s composting center. A few months later, of course, the weeds were back. The weeding effort provided good PR for the corporate sponsor and for the non-profit group organizing the work, and everyone went home with a T-shirt emblazoned with logos and slogans, but nothing changed. It seems improbable that any amount of weekend volunteers could pull enough weeds, and do it often enough, to defeat a plant invader, except in the most limited areas.

Cattle on pasture at Wrong Direction Farm in New York.
These guys have a few burrs hanging on to each ear. They don’t seem to pay much attention to them. They just focus on grazing. As long as the plant tastes good, it’s food to them.

If You’ve Got ‘Em, Graze ‘Em

Accepting and finding the best use for the plants that grow seems to be the only appropriate long-term strategy at the landscape level. Sure, in our backyard gardens we can continue to fight weeds mano a mano. But extensive landscapes are different.

A better approach involves identifying the appropriate partner, whether it be humans, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, chickens, pollinators, songbirds, etc., then looking for ways in which the invasive plant functions as a resource. This is a challenge requiring creativity, but it allows us to focus on pragmatic solutions that maximize benefits in the midst of an ever changing world. Can we eat it? Can a farm animal eat it? Can it provide habitat diversity?

Fighting invasives is a task for Sisyphus. The gods have given us enough futility to deal with in our lives. We don’t need to take on his punishment of rolling that particular boulder endlessly up the hill. An undisturbed ecosystem never has existed. There is no golden age to which we can return any patch of ground. But we can make this age a better one by making wise use of the plants around us.

The “regeneration” we speak about in regenerative farming is all about regrowing after something has been severed or broken. But regrowth is not the same as video game respawning. We never return to an identical previous state. Regeneration always carries forward elements of the circumstances in which the regrowth is taking place. If we want to be truly regenerative farmers, we must appreciate the ways in which changing external circumstances will necessarily influence, challenge, harm, and improve our farming.

On our farm, that approach takes burdock and makes it into burdock root tea, grass fed beef, and pasture raised turkey. One invasive and prickly plant can become multiple valuable resources.

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