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Grazing Foxtail Barley is an Option

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By Jeremiah Vardiman, University of Wyoming

Now is the time to graze foxtail barley. Foxtail barley is a fair to good forage value in the springtime and can be grazed safely by livestock prior to seed development. If you have this nuisance weed, take advantage of every opportunity that is available, which in the spring can be some forage value. 

Grazing does suppress foxtail barley’s vigor and growth, though it will not kill or stop the spread of this obnoxious weed. Under heavy or continuous grazing situations, foxtail barley will spread mainly due to livestock’s selection for more desirable plants in the area. 

Even though foxtail barley is native to North America, it is typically identified as a weed and associated with poor soils or poor management. This cool season perennial bunch grass mainly receives this categorization because of its negative impact to livestock and decreased hay values. 

This plant is typically not an issue or concern until it reaches maturity with the course seed head. Once the seed head emerges, the grass is no longer palatable to livestock and wildlife, and is usually avoided because barbed awns can cause sores in the eyes, nose, mouth and skin of livestock. These sores can become infected impacting the animal’s health, especially from abscesses in the mouth. 

Hay contaminated with foxtail barley is deemed unsafe for livestock. Unlike a pasture situation, livestock fed contaminated hay cannot avoid eating the plants and injury to their mouth. Injury symptoms can be visible awns lodged in the skin or snout, drooling, swollen jaw and lack of appetite.

Foxtail barley is found in floodplains, pastures, wetlands, roadsides and disturbed areas. It is usually associated with poorly drained soils and alkali/saline soil conditions. The largest concern for this weed is usually in pastures and perennial cropland, such as hay fields and minimum tillage production. 

The best control for foxtail barley is maintaining a healthy stand of competitive desirable plants, adequate drainage, good fertility and proper grazing practices. Desirable grass species for low saline soil conditions would be orchardgrass, timothy and bromes. Sites with moderate to high saline soil conditions would benefit from desirable grass species like tall fescue, garrison creeping foxtail, tall wheatgrass and saltlander wheatgrass.

Burning is not usually an effective control for foxtail barley. In pasture situations, fires tend to move too quickly and do not achieve the necessary temperature to kill the seeds. Burning contaminated windrows can be effective in reducing seed dispersion.

Mechanical control methods, like mowing and grazing, can be a short-term management to prevent seed dispersal. Tillage is an effective means of removing foxtail barley from production areas, especially when the soil is turned over. 

This is due to the low seed viability, which is approximately one year, and destruction of the root’s tillers. Seed survival is the greatest on the soil surface, while on the other hand seeds that are buried three inches deep can barely survive beyond the initial year. 

There are also chemical control options for foxtail barley, which are mostly dependent on the presence of desirable plants and site of the application. Control of foxtail barley is best in early growth stages and prior to infestation levels. 

This spring, start getting a handle on the foxtail barley patches by grazing the plants prior to seed development. Follow the grazing with a chemical or tillage option, whichever is feasible for the site, and encourage desirable plants that can grow in that area. For selection of herbicides for foxtail barley, contact your local Weed and Pest office or Extension office.

Jeremiah Vardiman is an agriculture Extension educator with University of Wyoming Extension. He can be reached at jvardima@uwyo.edu.

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