By Tom Collins
PORT ELMSLEY — Wild parsnip might have more effects on the farm than many realize. Not only can the weed burn skin, but cattle that eat wild parsnip might lose their appetites.
Beef farmer Ted Letts, at Port Elmsley near Smiths Falls, said the wild parsnip is starting to appear on his farm. Mostly found in ditches, the weed started to appear on one side of Letts’ 7.5 acre field last year.
“In Eastern Ontario, we’ve got a mess,” said Letts. “It’s taking over all our hayfields. It’s a very stubborn plant to kill. This isn’t going to go away for a long time.”
The weed grows up to two metres high and in its second year, like dandelions, produces an abundance of seeds that blows all over the place. There are a few ways to try to stop its spread. Most common is to spray for it in May and June. But farmers have to be careful as there is usually water in ditches this time of year, and the chemical can’t run into that water. Another option is to keep cutting the field where the parsnip is, but leave the grass on the field. That will slow down the spread, but costs time and money, and the farmer loses the hay he would normally collect on the land he cut.
Letts sprayed the parsnip last fall but now realizes that was a mistake.
“We were attacking it totally wrong,” he said. “Doing anything in the fall is too late. If you touch it at all, you spread the seed. And that was the worst thing you could do. We should have been attacking it in the spring.”
When the parsnip is crushed, it emits a sap that when touched and exposed to sunlight chemically burns the skin. The condition is called photodermatitis and the resulting blisters can last 10 days to 14 days and the discolouring can last up to one year. If you get it on your hand and touch your eye, you can lose your sight.
If the parsnip is baled with hay and a cow eats it, the cow might lose its appetite. Independent agronomist Gilles Quesnel said this might only be an issue if feed is limited and the cow has to eat more of the parsnip than it would if there was plenty of feed. Quesnel also said a cow would have to eat a fair bit of the parsnip for it to lose its appetite.
Ontario Invasive Plants Council president Iola Price said farmers may need to think more about managing the weed rather than exterminating it.
“You may never be able to eradicate it,” she said. “It takes an awful lot of work and an awful lot of money. But having management as your goal is more reasonable (but) it may take several years.”