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Why weeds succeed
Dr. Victor Martin

The drought monitor report as of Tuesday, March 14 indicates exceptional drought envelopes almost all of Barton and Pawnee Counties. Northeast and East Central Kansas are out of dry conditions. If conditions don’t improve significantly and soon, almost all of the western half of the state will be in exceptional drought. The six to ten-day outlook (to March 21 to 25) indicates 33 to 40% leaning towards below normal temperatures and 33 to 50% chance of leaning above normal precipitation. The eight to 14-day outlook (March 23 to 29) indicates a 33 to 40% chance of leaning to below normal temperatures and normal precipitation. The cooler temperatures will help the wheat a bit but as of now we would typically be near first hollow stem. Overall, a pretty grim near-term outlook.

If you take a look outside, you will notice plants from dandelions to nettles and cheat grasses staring to grow while most yards are still brown. In spite of the exceptional drought in our area, weeds seem to thrive. Wheat is struggling to really green up and grow. It seems whether in a backyard or a farmer’s field, everyone spends a great deal of time, energy, and money on controlling weeds. It’s not by accident that weeds are successful.  What are some of the reasons why?

• Most are native and/or well-adapted to the areas they grown in while most of are crops are not. The advantages include being able to germinate and grow more vigorously in less than ideal conditions. We develop hybrids and varieties primarily for optimal yields under ideal conditions (plant spacing, fertility, etc.) while our weeds have developed to compete effectively in a less than ideal environment.

• Seed production is typically much higher per plant than our crop plants. Some can produce several hundred thousand seeds per acre.

• Many of our most problematic weeds such as bindweed are perennials while, with the exception of alfalfa, our common field crops aren’t. That allows for an extensive root system better able to extract water and nutrients.  

• We synchronize the timing of germination, flowering, etc. in our field crops for obvious reasons. We want the seeds we plant to germinate and all in the same year for example. It’s a benefit for weeds to have seeds remain viable in the field over a period of years and germinate over several years.

• Our crop plants are intentionally not genetically diverse and that provides benefits to producers. There may be hundreds of varieties/hybrids for a given crop yet they almost all genetically the same. Weeds are genetically diverse and that makes them more adaptable and for their genetics to shift quickly as conditions/stresses change. Think how quickly weeds can shift genetically to become resistant to herbicides.

• Finally, for today, many of weeds, especially problem weeds such as field bindweed and yellow nutsedge, can reproduce using more than seeds. In my two examples, they both can spread and reproduce with underground stems termed rhizomes. Some spread and reproduce using above ground horizontal stems termed stolons. And there are bulbs, corms, etc.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207, or