Pigweed Is Bringing Us To Our Knees



Awhile back I wrote here about how Palmer amaranth, a pigweed native to the Southwest, was marching northward into the kingdom of corn and soybeans because it has become immune to most herbicides. That was only a small part of the Great Pigweed Uprising. Other versions of the plant (there are lots of them) like our own common Midwestern natives, Amaranthus tuberculatus and Amaranthus rudis (don’t I sound airoodyte?) have also gone resistant. Out in the country, some farmers call it water hemp and others call it red root, but in either case these weeds have developed a fondness for Roundup and other popular weedkillers. You won’t see headlines in the agribusiness press that say “MONSANTO RETREATING BEFORE INVADING PIGWEED HOARDS” but that is sort of what is happening. Weed specialists are seriously talking about gangs of workers patrolling the corn and soybean rows hoeing out the weeds. I like to read Pam Smith’s column (she is one of the few agribusiness writers with lots of heart) online at DTN-Progressive Farming and she refers to the latest in water hemp control as the old Santa Claus treatment:  Walk the rows and hoe, hoe, hoe.

Giant ragweed is also showing resistance (you can get the whole long, sad story online easily enough). This weed can grow up taller than corn on good bottom land and can stop a combine in its tracks. As I have railed here before, both pigweed and giant ragweed have excellent food value as grain and forage, so we are obviously faced with an almost amusing irony. It would be nearly impossible for large scale farming to continue without herbicides but the weeds we must kill could, in a different world, be just as nutritional for food and forage as corn and soybeans.

I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I use Roundup. It works wonderfully well to kill multiflora rose in fence rows. I battled that pernicious plague for years by hand and often withdrew from the fray wounded and bloody. (You do know that it was the Soil Conservation Service that promoted that stuff in the 1950s.) Now I am getting my revenge. In my dotage, so to speak, I drive along with one hand guiding the four-wheeler and the other guiding the sprayer head.

Having, in younger years, controlled weeds in big soybean fields with the Santa Claus method rather than the Monsanta Claus method of today, I don’t wish that on to the next generation though it certainly would mean creating lots of jobs. (Actually hoeing weeds in bean rows isn’t really all that bad— a good way to get paid for hunting Indian artifacts. I still walk my corn rows with a hoe but I’ve only an acre’s worth and I have learned that after the corn gets a head start on the weeds I can quit because it grows just fine even though the weeds come on later. Looks awful but who cares. (The field is not out along the road where everyone can see it.) I hand husk the corn so I don’t have to worry about weeds plugging up the combine. My grandfather turned his sheep in tall corn and they ate the weeds and left the corn ears alone.

But what if herbicides become obsolete? We will have to control weeds by cultivation and in my experience that means smaller farms and more rotations with hay crops. I have a hunch that engineers at John Deere etc. these days are busy designing weed cultivators that stretch over a hundred rows or so. But even if this works, it means more erosion and more time in the field.

Or maybe we will return to several hundred million little garden farms where the pigweeds will bring us all to our knees, pulling them out. Would that really be so bad?


Growing trees successfully requires continuous management too. Planting them is the easy part. Now get ready for more invasives to control such as garlic mustard, honeysuckle, European buckthorn, etc. Don’t forget tree diseases and insect pests that can pose challenges. We learned from the dutch elm disease and emerald ash borer experience not to plant too many of one species in one place, i.e. a monoculture.

Just for the record my goats and cattle eat pigweed every Summer have never seen any ill effects from it.

Pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) is toxic for cattle, goats and sheeps. But horses, donkeys and pigs may be fine if the consume the roots, stems and leaves. That is a problem, as some wrote that they would plan to use goats and sheeps to feed on pigweed, not knowing that this plant would kill them, unfortunately.
Now, regarding the seeds, they are edible, good for animals and humans. I think it would be a very good crop, as the grains’ price is better than that of corn. Being very rustic, this plant would need little care or attention. Just wait until the time to harvest the grains

Living in the Central African Republic, we ate vegetable amaranth on a daily basis. We grew it densely in raised beds and plucked the young shoots out of the ground, or let it get big and plucked leaves. Grain amaranth, harvested for the tiny seeds, are now being popped and ground into flour and is available from East Africa to Portland, OR. It is an ancient grain that has spread around the globe, though most of the current information available it written for the tropics. Echocommunity.org has some good technical information on cultivating amaranth, harvesting, popping, etc. Both the leaves and seeds contain protein of an unusually high quality. Grains contain 15% protein. I constantly tell farmers they should try and eat their ‘pigweed’ and they laugh….

All well and good, oh ye who would harvest pigweed or let your animals have at it, but here in central Virginia, we have SPINY pigweed, with a huge fat thorn growing right at the bottom of the stalk where you have to grip to pull it up. It pierces the thickest of gloves. And when you try to hoe it, if you leave any little bit of it in the ground, it just grows fast and furious and FLAT to the ground, giving you no hope of controlling it. The cows know better than to mess with it, as do the sheep. Haven’t tried goats….

Has anyone harvested the seeds? Pigweed is supposedly a native food, and I’d like to try them.

My hogs eat multifloral rose….nuff said.

The goats and the donkeys love to eat the stuff and have the picky pony eating it now.

Great. As if Viet Nam wasn’t bad enough, we’re going to start spraying Agent Orange on our own country?

I haven’t heard anything about that, but it makes sense. Though its just a matter of time, I think, until 2,4-D loses effectiveness. Anything that puts extreme selective pressure on a species or group of species will indirectly speed up the evolutionary process. Dandelions have learned a thick deep taproot will make them even resistant to some less motivated ho-ers!

I believe the industry’s solution to this problem is awaiting regulatory approval: 2,4-D resistant corn and soy.

I had giant ragweed that was resistant to roundup almost a decade ago in SE Minnesota. No great surprise that weeds develop resistance. For a number of years glyphosate (active ingredient in roundup) was all the growers used. Now almost all weed control plans call for another product (or 2 ) in addition to roundup because of the resistance problem. If we did not utilize monocultures this would not be an issue.

Another great post Gene. Happy Valentines Day! I love that your blog is a forum to exchange ideas without all the hate and anger that shows up on so many blogs.

We grew Amaranth for the first time this year. I would love to know how to harvest it better though for a small scale farmer.

I love the idea of running animals/chickens through the corn to eat the weeds and just wondering how I can do that and keep the little blighters safe from any predators at the same time. Hmmm! Will work on that.

Just EAT IT, MY GOSH!!! Or Juice It, or chop it up for your WORM BIN…you do have a worm bin…Hello??? Why fight these things? They are a blessing, not a curse.

This makes me laugh, because I know of at least one miserably failed program that tried to use Camelina as a biofuel. Its different than pigweed, but I think you’re on the right track. They could say “It’s not a food crop!” which would fool tons of people into thinking their biofuel adventure wouldn’t compromise food production acreage, etc.
I think it is fairly unrealistic to expect any sort of remotely rational response to this problem from the industry. Stockholders don’t usually make money on honest companies.

As some old TV ad used to say back in the 60’s “Its not nice to fool Mother Nature”.I plant
grain Amaranth which is a fancy Pigweed for my livestock,great feed and so is the regular Pigweed my goats love it as do the chickens and Muscovys after it seeds out.Pigweed is also a staple for songbirds in the Winter where it grows in wide fence rows or unused corners.Pigweed is easy to control with crop rotations as I usually have my truck patches on a 3 year rotation,First year corn or other long season crop,2nd year something like beans or squash that I double or triple crop then the third year cover crops all year and that breaks the cycle.Also White Chinese geese will clean all the weeds out of corn in a hurry,best to put in half grown geese when the corn is about waist high.Anyway I always say that Industrial Farming will be gone as soon as Gov’t Money and cheap oil go away and looks like both are on the way out.Good for Pigweed it can just help the demise along a little.
Another good post Gene

Why not just plant native trees where the pigwed has taken over?

In a couple of generations the forest will have surely choked the pigweed out.

Red Root pigweed here in central lower Michigan is still killed well with Roundup but lambsquarters not so well. It is just a metter of time before all pests and weeds become resistant. I am going to rig up a flamer soon and burn weeds. Propane is cheaper than herbicide for my problems but the hoe and cultivator still my tools of choice.

I love the idea of a hundred million little garden farms. It would also answer Wendell Berry’s question: “What are people for?” This is one area of production that cannot be done better/cheaper/faster by robots. Care-giving, education, scientific exploration and farming are still best done by humans.

life of the hand - life of the mind February 13, 2013 at 8:47 am

Several hundred million little garden farms…each using Roundup. Unhypocritically!

In the on-going feud between conventional and organic, those of us on the third path (described in your last paragraph) see the world more clearly, I think. The world is a better place for those of us who like to produce some or most of our own food and appreciate the nature of the chores needed to do that. I remember when atrazine first came out and I was amazed that anything could kill quackgrass, which had been my nemesis as a boy cultivating corn with a two-row cultivator on a 36-horsepower tractor. I am happy to see you doing so well. I still treasure the signed Two-Acre Eden you sent me 30 years ago. I am writing, still, about fruit production these days.

I’m with Beth Greenwood on this one. Part of “crop rotation” should be “animal rotation.”

I look forward to the day when farmers hand-hoe pigweed, and then don’t have a place to put it. I’m an intake for Scotch Broom, and my goats love it. Several public-minded groups and the local park commission hold work parties to pull the stuff and haul it over to our place. It’s fun to get people who see a problem to turn it into my solution.

But Gene, seriously, you’re a RoundUp guy? My image has been shattered!

In my negative world is see no hope for small farms. I imagine 36 row cultivators with some sort of gps alignment, greenseeker technology spot spraying pig weed, a “guest worker” program, a huge boondogle where pigweed is promoted as a biofuel and a bazillion dollars is wasted. Something that is actually worse than pigweed like a rotation with Italian ryegrass, ANYTHING but utilizing pigweed or promoting small independent farms.
I have had pigweed salad and it tastes like salad. I’ve had wilted pigweed salad and it tastes like bacon grease.
It is hard to make pigweed hay.The stems are hard to get dry.

Yeah, my goats and sheep love the stuff. And it’s pretty nutritious too. I wonder if it would make good hay? Same for the ragweed…it’s an animal taste treat. And my goats absolutely LOVE multiflora rosa. They will strip it to the ground given the chance. So forget Monsanto, stop growing corn and soybeans and get goats!

Or maybe we could fence the fields and let chickens, pigs, goats and sheep take care of it for us? I don’t have goats, because while I like them, my husband considers them fit only for target practice, but all of my other animals love pigweed and eat it down to the ground. And the pigs, of course, then root up what remains. It might mean taking a field out of cultivation for a cycle but think of all that lovely manure…

Sounds like we need to cultivate it for forage, Gene. That’s a sure-fire way to make it susceptible to everything under the sun.

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