Ever heard of a weed garden? No, not the front yard that hasn't received attention in a few months.
The Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona actually has a weed garden, where some of the most troublesome plants are cultivated in 250 square demo plots. "It is used for demonstrations for ranchers and county extension agent training," explained Dr. Brent Sellers, extension weed specialist for pastures and rangeland. Some plots even house buckets of water to demonstrate aquatic plant pests.
Today, agents from local University of Florida extension offices had gathered together to weed the weed garden. That means they had to make sure the right weeds were in the right places, under the placards showing their various names.
But Sellers hasn't always been a weed guy. He grew up on a hog farm in Indiana. The family grew corn to feed the hogs and raised the animals, but keeping the farm alive wasn't easy.
Sellers went to Purdue University to pursue a biology degree and also earned a second degree in secondary education. During that time, he met a USDA weed scientist, "fell in love" with the weed program and started a Master's in weed science at Purdue in 1996, followed by a doctorate in agronomy from the University of Missouri.
Said the 42-year-old, "I grew up in the '80s when making a living in ag was really difficult. I saw this as a way to stay involved in agriculture and make a difference."
Nine years ago, while working on his post-doctorate at the University of Missouri, Sellers got the opportunity to come to the research station in central Florida. He is currently working on two big projects to manage smutgrass and broomsedge.
Smutgrass, a clumping, grassy weed and broomsedge, a tall weed whose bristly blades were once used to make brooms, are pest plants on ranchlands. These plants take over good forage and cattle dislike eating them.
A lot of research is being done on the invasive smutgrass, which can take over from five to over 90 percent of pastureland. Sellers said the grass probably originated in the West Indies. "We're still trying to find the best way to manage it. We'll never get rid of it," the scientist said. There is currently one herbicide that kills it, but it is expensive.
As for broomsedge, Sellers said researchers "are not making any headway yet." There are no selective herbicides that kill the plant, so scientists are testing out a fertility program to see if bahia grass can outcompete the weed.
The Ona station researchers have had success in the past with a project on another weed called dog fennel. This broadleaf plant grows high, and while grass can grow under it, cattle don't like to push through the plant looking for good forage underneath.
Sellers said the research on dog fennel has been a success. "I was able to tell ranchers that if they have over 50 percent groundcover in the spring, they'll lose 80 percent of their bahia by July," he said. There are several herbicides that work to control dog fennell, he added, including 2,4-D, to PastureGard HL, Weedmaster and GrazonNext HL.
The agronomist said he really enjoys his job working with ranchers and state agencies like Florida Fish and Wildlife and the water management districts, with whom he works to manage invasive weeds and semi-aquatic grasses.
He also married Hardee County native Mary Shannon Sellers, and recently became an adoptive dad to her 12-year-old son, Hunter.
"I can honestly say I didn't plan on staying here this long, but I kind of fell in love with the atmosphere, the people here," said the hunter and fisherman. He added, "It's going to be hard to get me away."