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Volunteers, with cows in tow, join war on thistle

Ashley Harrell

Pt. Reyes Light

On Saturday morning, Stacy Carlsen pulled into the Chileno Valley Ranch in his 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air 2-door with a “killer tool” in his trunk and an organic clementine in his pocket. Carlsen, the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner, was ready to rip distaff thistle – an invasive broadleaf weed – out of the earth.

“They saw me coming and tried to pop out of the ground,” Carlsen quipped from behind bad-boy shades. He joined 21 more volunteers at Sally and Mike Gale’s ranch for the first Saturday weeding set to Bach tunes provided by flutist Rita Fabrizzio.

The volunteers gathered at the ranch at 9:30 a.m., then crossed Chileno Valley Road and filed through the fence to a distaff-infested gulch on the hillside. The crowd, which included representatives from Marin Organic and the California Native Plant Society as well as friends of the Gales and anti-herbicide activists, waded through wild oats and ryegrass carrying hand trowels at their sides and pitchforks and shovels over their shoulders.

For three hours, the volunteers pummeled, pried and piled, careful to avoid uprooting the native plants. The work was relatively painless compared to eradicating Italian thistle, according an overalled Marcus Lipton of Petaluma Hill Road, who didn’t even wear gloves. “I just fracture, fracture, fracture, then pull,” he said, demonstrating with his pick mattock. One volunteer broke out in hives, but none lost blood to the relatively benign thistle bristles.

The warm, cloudless day was ideal for the task, and Sally Gale, in a white bonnet, was extremely pleased with the event, which ended with a cliff-bar picnic and a visit from Marin County Supervisor Susan Adams. “I’m a huge fan of the Gales, and they put out a call for thistle pulling,” Adams said.

The event was triggered by an eruption of anti-pesticide activism in February over the aerial spraying of 2,4-D – the third most wildly used herbicide in America, and a common eradicator of West Marin thistle. Some activists decry 2,4-D as a carcinogen and are fast to point fingers at ranchers who spray. But 2,4-D is permitted under the law, and ranchers have long argued that activists do not understand the complicated, expensive, and time-consuming process of banishing thistles.

“I was disturbed by the controversy,” Gale said. “It was yet another example of splitting ranchers off from everyone else, and I thought this might be a good opportunity.” Gale reasoned that the event could help educate the community as to the challenges of thistle management while helping weed her pastures non-toxically.

The volunteer effort cleared hundreds of thistles, but Gale said that hand-pulling was only one slice of the weeding pie. Good land management, weed-free hay, mowing, burning, and teaching cows to eat distaff are all part of a comprehensive plan to get rid of thistles without using herbicides. But no matter how they’re gotten rid of, there’s always a threat thistles will come back.

The reason for that, according to Commisioner Carlsen, is the complicated nature of well, nature. Grasslands are the second most diverse ecosystems in the world, Carlsen said, right behind tropical rain forests.

“It’s not so simple as ‘oh, weeds. Go out and pull them,’” he said. “There’s an ecological force behind them.” When bald spots are left in overgrazed pastures, they will be seized by thistles, Carlsen said. And once a few thistles are permitted to take root, their seeds will be blown around, sometimes to neighboring ranches and farms, creating a widespread and long-term problem.

One innovative way to better manage pasture, as demonstrated at the Gale’s on Saturday, is to teach cows to eat thistle. Italian thistle and distaff are actually quite nutritious for them, according to Utah State University research associate Kathy Voth, who recently received a grant from the Rathmann Family Foundation to train the cows. She’s working with both the Chileno Valley Ranch and 29 Lunny cows living at Peggy Rathmann and John Wick’s ranch in Nicasio. On Monday afternoon, the Lunny cows ate pure, fresh cut distaff from Rathmann’s hand for the first time ever. (They were previously eating molasses and alfalfa-molasses-soaked weeds).

“These girls are the first generation weed-eaters,” Rathmann said. “I’d like to build a herd of like-minded individuals.” Despite being fed grass and alfalfa hay, some cows fought each other to eat thistle out of the feeders, but the next and more difficult step will be to teach the cows to eat the thistles out in the field. Voth’s grant allows her, for now, to offer her services for free. Anyone interested in teaching cows to eat thistle should email kvoth@livestockforlandscapes.com or call (415) 662-9820. Those interested in volunteering at the Gale’s should contact Marin Organic at (415) 663-9667.