Gene Logsdon and Friends

Weeds That Like A Sip of Roundup Now and Then

In Gene's Weekly Posts on September 5, 2012 at 4:41 am

From GENE LOGSDON

First the glorious days of advanced farming brought us corn stalks that eat tractor tires. Now there’s a weed that likes to drink weed killers, especially Roundup. Recently Palmer amaranth “completely overran” most of the soybean test plots at Bayer CropScience’s test plots in Illinois, in the words of DTN/Progressive Farmer editor, Pam Smith, despite having an arsenal of herbicides thrown at it. She describes some of the plots as “forests of pigweed.” I shouldn’t joke about this because it really is a serious problem, but I just can’t help it. At least 20 years ago, in New Farm magazine, a Rodale publication I was working for at the time, we reported weeds becoming immune to herbicides and the herbicide industry hee-hawed us for being organic nitwits. So pardon me while I hee-haw right back.

Palmer amaranth is one of about 60 recognized kinds of pigweed or amaranth (we call it redroot in my neck of the woods). The Palmer type is native to the arid southwest but finds other climates just fine, especially in drought years. First it marched across the southern states and now is invading the Midwest. I have a great hunch that other pigweeds like the kind that plagues my garden will also become glyphosate-resistant if they haven’t already. Ironically, the weedkiller industry is now advocating crop rotation along with their herbicides as the way to control weeds, which of course is what wise farming understood long before Roundup came around.

What makes this situation almost amusing is that Palmer amaranth is at least 8000 years old and makes nutritious food for humans. Amaranth was a staple in the Aztec diet as well as Mississippian Indian cultures of the mound-building era. To this day, the seeds or grains of this “weed” are popped and mixed with honey to make a popular snack in Mexico called alegria. Grain amaranth is still found in seed catalogs (Seeds of Change, for one). Back in the 1970s and 80s, the Rodale Institute, under the aegis of Bob Rodale, began seriously to experiment with pigweed and the Rodale Institute remains today an excellent source of information on it. The first time I saw a whole field of pigweed in neat, long rows on the Rodale farm, I nearly went into cultural shock. This weed, which I had been taught from childhood was consummate evil, was arrayed in agronomic splendor across the landscape. But I became convinced that Bob was onto something and for quite a few years wrote enthusiastically about farmers and gardeners who tried to grow amaranth as a food crop.

But American society is not geared for pigweed farming. The seeds are so tiny that they are devilish hard to harvest and handle with piston engine power. Prehistoric hunters and gatherers painstaking gathered and ground the grain into good food because that’s what they did. We will still hunt and gather wild nuts, berries, mushrooms and fish for fun but not for work. We don’t do pigweed because we don’t need to do it and there’s no cultural glamor in it. We could change, I suppose. Harvesting marijuana is just as painstaking as harvesting pigweed but quite a few people are willing to do that, it seems. There may come a day when that will be true of pigweed too and it won’t be illegal. Until then, we must try to poison nutritious free food into extinction to suit the goals of industrial grain production. Some days I wonder if it might not be better to culturally engineer humans to enjoy small scale garden farming than to genetically engineer weeds to save large scale agribusiness.
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  1. We have pigweed issues in our blueberry farm. Can’t really rotate that crop. Darn stuff is impossible to pull up after it gets to any size at all. Can’t flame it because it melts the drip tape. Cutting or weed-wacking it makes it become a hydra with more seeds. Anyone have any good suggestions OTHER than weed killer?

    • Goats and sheep are excellent weed eaters… University of Maryland has been working successfully with contained weed eating.

    • Check “Weeds and Why They Grow” available through Acres USA. Might be a question of raising the soil organic matter?

  2. I rather think that on most days you know it would be “be better to culturally engineer humans to enjoy small scale garden farming than to genetically engineer weeds to save large scale agribusiness.” You are doing your part. Great post.

  3. Kind of nostalgic effect watching the men with the hoes. I’ve spent weeks at a time with a mattock.
    We’ve always had a tractor rigged with corn cultivators as long as i can remember -still do.

  4. I’ve been growing grain Amaranth for a few years now and its a great feed the seeds and the whole plants for just about any type livestock plus its a beautiful plant.Pigweed on my place has apparently crossed with the grain type as it has now alot more seeds than it used to which is great by me.About this time of year the poultry that run loose start to
    glean the seeds from pigweed,pokeberries and the most under rated weed of all Lambs
    Quarter.Birds and rabbits use pigweed and other weeds as cover and food along fence rows and hummocks I encourage on the edge of woods.Deer also make good use of these weeds and in return I get some great Venison.
    As far as controling pigweed and other weeds in crops I don’t use chemicals so thats not an issue and I have yet to have a weed that got immune to the steel sweeps of a cultivator or the steel tines on a tiller.
    Its hardly any plant that grows that can’t be used for some benefit on an intergrated
    farm even cockleburr makes a great mulching plant and a thick stand that will come up sometimes after an application of manure makes a great green manure when its tilled back into the soil before it has a chance to seed.Keep up the good work Gene.

    • Phew I am glad you have something positive to say about Amaranth as this the first year we have tried it. We tried it along with Quinoa and it is by far the better grower in this rather cold wet season we’ve just had in Latvia. Still waiting for the seeds to ripen though

  5. I first started eating pigweed as spinach in my pernurious youth in Chicago. It volunteered in the margins along the sidewalks. Have since grown in the garden for spinach. When thrown to the chickens, it creates a feeding frenzy. Wonderful stuff from our perspective.

  6. I also planted Quinoa for the first time this year and planted it in June the same time I did the Amaranth which I found out later was a mistake.Amaranth loves hot weather and Quinoa hates it and our weather this year has been extremely hot with many 95 to 100 degree days the Quinoa was slow to come up and grew poorly which I found out is what it does in heat so next year I’ll plant some around the first of April.That’ll work real well about the time the Quinoa runs out the Amaranth should be ready.Anyway the Quinoa plot with it and all the weeds made great green manure and I tilled it up the other day and planted turnips and tillage radishes the turnips came up in 3 days the ground is pretty wet here from all the rain.

  7. Pig weed is a fantastic vegetable….in Lingala it is called bitekuteku….the leaves cook up a lot like spinach. I presume that some varieties are better than others, but it’s really fantastic in my experience. As good at nettles or spinach any day.

    I notice that somebody already mentioned grain amaranth above….love this stuff.

  8. You write:

    “At least 20 years ago, in New Farm magazine, a Rodale publication I was working for at the time, we reported weeds becoming immune to herbicides and the herbicide industry hee-hawed us for being organic nitwits. So pardon me while I hee-haw right back.”

    Lord knows you’ve got many people to hee-haw. Even without looking for articles and reports about the growing immunity of weeds to herbicides, I run into them all the time..And it’s always the same: Farmers and industry people everywhere are quoted as being “amazed” at the “rate of acceleration.”

    This amazement amazes me. The workings of simple adaptation seem to me to be everywhere. And have always been everywhere. The evidence is hardly scarce or new.

    Yet farmers don’t see it, or pick up on it? Clearly their tractors are too large.

    And researchers? Clearly their pay checks are too large.

  9. Boil up the leaves when the plants are young and serve smothered in butter!! Yum!

  10. I had to laugh when I read that amaranth was considered a weed in other parts of the country! I’m in the high dessert and anything that grows and is edible is golden around here!

  11. I recently purchased a goodly amount of organic hard red wheat to use for poultry and animal feed and as reserve stock for making bread should the opportunity arise. The grower was apologetic; saying it’s organic so we didn’t use herbicide , so there is a lot of pigweed seed in with the grain it also appeared there was a bit of lambsquarter seed as well. I told him that those were wild versions of the “new” faddish seed foods (I can’t bring myself to call them grains , because they are definitely not grains) which are known as Amaranth and Quinoa, for which I pay good money to purchase at Costco in the form of granola mix ingredients (just had some for breakfast) or alternatively pay good money from the natural foods store. Following Euell GIbbons example, I used to ear pigweed and lambsquarter leaves like we would otherwise use spinach and many folks still do likewise . Nutritionally they’re excellent although I read they can be nitrate accumulators. I suspect that is only a concern if they re in exceptionally nitrogen rich soil and a lack of water encourages nitrate accumulation. Even common crops can accumulate nitrate in the right conditions. My goats really like eating the foliage and smaller stems and I shred the remnant stalks to put down as bedding in the goat barn along with straw and brush shreddings. It all makes great compost. Poultry eat at least some of the leaves and gobble up the seed heads as do pigs, hence the pigweed name I suspect. Given the abilities to provide human and animal food, soil builder, serve as a soil nutrient recycler and, if let go, they hold soil against wind erosion. There is no careful crop tending needed and the roots loosen soil, providing decaying organic material and macropores for water infiltration .They like disturbed ground so fill in when we plow to “control” weeds. They don’t use mychorrizae to accomplish all this either, which most other plants find to be very beneficial All in all what is not to like?

    I’ve found that Amaranth will, in my experience at least, eventually disappear from rotated pasture. Is there a lesson here?

    Is it not rather ironic that Monsanto can spend lots of dollars and even patent Roundup Ready crops and yet the weeds can generate their own Roundup Ready stocks. Wouldn’t it be something if somehow the amaranth managed to incorporate the Roundup Ready genes into their own genes from Roundup Ready crops. Sounds impossible to humans who need to use gene guns and deactivated viruses and other fancy technologies to transfer genes from one species to another. Alternatively, if the Amaranth came up with the necessary genes all on their own that is equally remarkable.

    Perhaps the Scientists should try to figure out how the Amaranth managed to accomplish that genetic shuffle. They might learn something. Although probably, given current research funding sources, the scientists will be researching how the Amaranth accomplished such a feat just so they can develop an alternative herbicide. Perhaps they should attempt to learn how the Amaranth accomplished this feat as something useful instead of an enemy to defeat. Note, I’m not really bashing scientists, because I am one, I’m just noting that trying to find out why something this remarkable occurred is often its own reward.

  12. I like to joke that someday Monsanto will start marketing Roundup Ready crop varieties with Roundup Susceptible weed seeds already mixed in. Call it Weed Refuge in the bag. That way, the weeds would cross pollinate with resistant ones to form slightly less resistant varieties. This would work in perennial crops like Roundup Ready Alfalfa only if farmers re-seeded Monsanto Pigweed into the established stand each spring. Agribusiness knows no limits.

  13. Around here the Guatemalans eat the red root pig weed and sell it also. Usually they boil or steam it, then stir fry it with some spices and salt and put it in a cornmeal tortilla with some picante sauce. They had me try some of it which they had prepared this way and it is EXCELLENT! By the way, the Guatemalan tortillas are thicker, softer and much better than the Mexican type available in most stores. PIG WEED IS GOOD FOOD!!!!

  14. For all interested growing popping amaranth in Germany: The Dreschflegel Gbr sells seeds of a variety called “Alegria”. It works! The seeds ar tiny, and don’t be fooled by the tiny seedlings that come up. That will be some huge plants! Harvesting by hand and popping them is easy. We love the popped seeds baked into our bread or in Müsli. If you have any questions about the handling/hand harvest or popping, feel free to ask.
    Thanks for another wonderful blog post, Gene! I just love your sense of humor. Bettina

  15. This has been an excellent year for pigweed. I’ve seen more of it this year than ever. It has grown up in all my “disturbed” areas–around the pond, which was rejuvenated last fall and of course in the garden. I have managed this place organically for the past 5 years and it was fallow for several years before that. Must have been blown in? or brought in my birds? Or has it been dormant in the soil and conditions were just particularly good for it this year? For reference, I am in Middle Tennessee.

    • Betty, I don’t know for sure and I’ll bet others will have better answers for you, but I think the seed was dormant in the soil. Some seeds can lay dormant for years and years and when conditions are right, germinate.and grow again. Gene

      • I agree that weed seeds will lay dormant for years,as I can go out in the middle of a 40 acre pasture field that hasn’t had a Morning Glory growing in it for 30 years around the first of May and till up a spot and in a few days it’ll be covered in sprouting Morning Glory plants.I’ve been tilling strips the last few years in what was a pasture/hay field and the first year I just rip it with the chisel plow add manure,lime etc and end up just tilling every so often before the weeds that come up have their seeds come to maturity.The following year I plant a crop and have very little weed problems as I guess most of the weed seeds have already sprouted.

  16. Classic example of “if life gives you lemons …” Thanks, all, for the suggestions. If I improve my soil a bit more it might grow amaranth! Threshing sounds like a communal work project.

  17. “Some days I wonder if it might not be better to culturally engineer humans to enjoy small scale garden farming than to genetically engineer weeds to save large scale agribusiness.”

    I actually snorted when I read this. This gem of a quote is what I’ve come to expect from Mr. Logsdon – I ran all around my office making my employees read this article, hoping to share the cleverness of it. They stared at me as if I was loosing my mind (we are in the Cell Phone industry). But I’m the boss so they smiled and nodded nervously so I am satisfied.

    My arid farm in central Utah grows Pig Weed just fine and my chickens love it (oh and I don’t have to buy seed!).

    Thanks again Gene, you made my day.

    • Thank you Tucker and Russ for picking up on that sentence. You made my day too. I had to laugh at the reaction of your employees, Tucker. That’s what I have had to endure all my writing life. Most people just stare at me strangely if they read me at all. So few people are interested in the most vital thing in their lives: food production. Gene

  18. Do NOT eat pigweed or feed it to your livestock after the springtime, especially if you are in a hot dry area. It is a nitrate accumulator as someone pointed out and it can kill livestock, and make you very ill. We have news stories every summer about livestock dying from being turned into a field after the rains and eating the pigweed. The seeds are fine to harvest, it’s the greens that are the problem.

    • Guess my goats didn’t get the memo,seriously most of the time when something like that happens is when 1)High amounts of N in the form of chemical fertilizer or something like a large amount of chicken litter has been spread and 2)They are forced to eat large amounts with little else to eat and are half starving both of which go hand and with drought conditions.My goats eat it all the time when they can get to it with no ill effects I can see but they have plenty of other things to graze/browse on and I don’t use chemical fertilizer. Its like Pokeberry they won’t touch the stuff but at certain times in its growth cycle under normal conditions.

  19. I love this: “Some days I wonder if it might not be better to culturally engineer humans to enjoy small scale garden farming than to genetically engineer weeds to save large scale agribusiness.” Simply genius. And so true.

    Found your post because I’m researching pigweed and amaranth. I spied redroot pigweed growing in the midst of my New Mexico garden this year and thought it looked more like a grain plant than a “weed”. My heritage hogs love the stuff. It’s a nice addition to all of the garden produce, eggs, other grain and alfalfa they get. I am scratching my head today at the articles I’ve read claiming that pigweed is somehow “evil” and that feeding it to my hogs will kill them dead. They are very alive and extremely healthy critters, and their diet includes this “dangerous weed”. I am trying to reconcile this with the stories I’ve read online of kids being sent into the family orchard to collect the pigweed specifically to feed it to the family hogs or of other farmers gathering this free food to feed to their pigs. And I am getting a good case of cognitive dissonance as a result. I plan to grow giant golden amaranth next year in my garden – both for my family and my chickens and pigs – and I have read that amaranth is being grown in China primarily as forage for swine.

    I smell a rat.

    I think that the American public is being “trained” to view any edible wild plant as “poison” and “dangerous” and to feel that the only “safe” food is factory farm Monsanto roundup crops. The goal is to remove us all as far from the natural world as possible. Discovering pigweed and learning about Amaranth has been quite a journey, as I see something that has been hidden now coming to the fore.

    This is an excellent article Rethinking a weed: The Truth About Amaranth http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/rethinking-a-weed-the-truth-about-amaranth/ written by a fellow here in Santa Fe.

    I’m rethinking quite a few things these days…

    Thanks for your excellent article. I’ll be back and reading more!

    • Kimberly, nobody has mentioned it specifically but it is my experience and my learning that hogs particularly like pigweed roots. That’s why we always thought it was called pigweed. Gene

  20. How many pigweeds seeds make a bushel? You know, I might be reading it on the market reports someday.

  21. I am one of the lucky individuals to have been subjected to a fairly steady diet of young Palmer amaranth – That was back in the 50′s and I didnt know I was eating an 8000 year old food source with a fancy name at the time because we just called it red root pigweed.
    Dungannon Ontario Canada is certainly not south nor is it arid with an average rainfall somewhere around 32 inches a year.
    Like everything else there is a perfect time to harvest and cook it for the best flavor and we learned that if you grew a crop of sorghum for silage and then planted your garden there the next year that the Palmer Amaranth was noticeably absent.

    Jim Boak
    Wheatley Ontario Canada

  22. A comment on researchers from “small farms matter big” researchers are paid to research those things that the payor needs them to research. There is very little funding available for truly “independant study” so all of the really good ideas that save producers money and help to take us beyond sustainable never get to see the light of day in the broader sense.
    Tillage manufacturers earn on average $7 per acre per farm where as herbicide/seed suppliers earn in the 100′s of dollars per acre.. So tillage is seldom if ever independantly invesigated and reported on – because it is more profitable to research icides and promote no till.
    Wish I could change that.
    Jim

  23. “Some days I wonder if it might not be better to culturally engineer humans to enjoy small scale garden farming than to genetically engineer weeds to save large scale agribusiness.”

    Ah, another for my quotes database… :-)

    (Send email to Quotes@Bytesmiths.com to get 50 random quotes containing words in the Subject: line.)

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