NEW CASTLE, Colorado - Local farmers and ranchers must be vigilant about spotting and eradicating an ever-growing list of invasive weeds, said Steve Anthony, Garfield County's weed and vegetation manager, speaking at Garfield County's Ag Day on Wednesday.Speakers for the 24th annual Ag Day, which drew a crowd of 125 to the New Castle Community Center, talked about a variety of subjects besides weeds, including reclamation efforts once gas drilling rigs have finished their work, snow surveys that predict river flows, finding ways to use a farm or ranch as a tourist draw for extra income, and using alternative energy technology to cut down on utility bills.But the topic of weeds came first.At the top of Anthony's list is common reed grass, Phragmites australis in Latin, which appears to be on the increase around the Western Slope.The species, which can grow to 15 feet tall, seems to be moving in to fill the gaps left by eradication efforts aimed at tamarisk and the Russian olive tree."We don't want this to get out of hand," he warned the crowd.Anthony said the native reed grass was used by historic Native American tribes to make arrow shafts, musical instruments and mats for sitting and sleeping."We don't want to target the native plants," he said.The problem with weeds is that, while some are attractive to the eye, they can take over huge amounts of terrain and choke out other plant life, including native species needed by wildlife to survive, Anthony explained.Once invasive weeds are introduced, whether as ornamental plants in home aquariums that are tossed out onto the lawn, or as hitchhikers in the wheel wells of big rigs traveling the nation's highways, they can quickly become so dominant that they literally create a smothering prairie carpet that can stretch for thousands of square acres.For example, both the tamarisk and the Russian olive were non-native plant species introduced deliberately to the U.S. for different purposes. Both now are viewed as rampaging pests that must be exterminated wherever they are found.According to Anthony's presentation, there is an "A" list of targeted weeds, which the state has mandated must be eradicated wherever they are found.A "watch" list, which includes the common reed grass and 22 other species, is being monitored closely.Any species on the watch list can quickly be added to the A list, he said, once it starts to spread so much it is interfering with livestock and other agricultural pursuits.Anthony said many of the plants on the watch list, and some on the A list, have yet to appear in Garfield County to his knowledge. "I think we expected some of these other weeds to come in," he said, pointing to sheets of paper bearing pictures of weeds. But officials were surprised by the appearance of giant reed grass, he said. He urged those attending the conference to be on the watch for the common reed grass and to report it if it is spotted anywhere in the county.
Many of the ranchers in the audience came principally to hear Anthony speak, but also listened to the other experts."I came for whatever I can learn," said Mike Lederhause, 71, who grows hay on about 75 acres of land near McCoy.He found the talk on snow surveys by Derrick Wyle of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to be informative."The snow part was pretty interesting, how bad it's going to be," Lederhause said.Wyle described annual snow surveys that are used to predict river flows, floods and reservoir storage, which directly affect farming and ranching.As part of his presentation, Wyle reported that snowpack for the winter of 2012-2013 currently stands around 50 percent of normal for this part of Colorado.Even if the rest of the winter brings normal levels of snowfall, he predicted, this area is not likely to see better than 75 percent of normal.
Kelli Hepler of the Walden Mills Group planning firm and tourism coordinator for Delta County, explained the practice of agritourism.Marketing to tourists eager to see authentic farming or ranching, agritourism is a growing economic option for farmers and ranchers unable to make ends meet on crops or cattle alone, Hepler said.Joani Matranga of Carbondale, a renewable energy specialist with the Governor's Energy Office, spoke about energy efficiency technologies, such as solar photovoltaic cells and small hydroelectric facilities, that can keep utility costs down on farms and ranches.Steve Hale, an environmental official with Encana Oil & Gas (USA), spoke of his company's efforts to restore land to its original state after drilling wells for natural gas.With a wealth of photos and slides in a Powerpoint presentation, Hale lauded Encana for doing as much as it can to leave the land as natural as possible once the drilling rigs move on.In the audience, Silt Mesa rancher Rob Barry, 53 said, "I liked the reclamation stuff the guy from Encana was going on about."Barry said his 52 acres has not been drilled. He uses it to grow hay, "except for the weeds," so he also listened to Anthony with interest. Then there were some who just came for the fun."I came down for the camaraderie, or whatever you call it," said Don McGirr, 78, of Silt Mesa, sitting across from Lederhause.Next to Lederhause, Jake Stull, 75, who also grows hay near McCoy, said, "I came to get something to eat," referring to the barbecue lunch that had just been email@example.com