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BioControl (2006) 51:837–850  IOBC 2006

DOI 10.1007/s10526-005-5272-0

Sheep grazing vs. cutting: regeneration and soil nutrient

exploitation of the grassland weed Rumex obtusifolius

Johann G. ZALLER
Institute of Organic Agriculture, University of Bonn
Current address: Institute of Zoology, University of Natural Resources and Applied
Life Sciences Vienna, Gregor Mendel Strasse 33, A-1180, Vienna, Austria
e-mail: johann.zaller@boku.ac.at

Received 13 October 2005; accepted in revised form 16 November 2005

Abstract. Broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius L., Polygonaceae) is an agronomi-

cally important perennial weed causing decreases in pasture yields and fodder quality.
Non-chemical control measures for dock are often limited to frequent pulling and
cutting, additionally it is usually avoided by grazing animals. Here, the regeneration of
R. obtusifolius in a Rumex-infested grassland grazed by a sheep breed that explicitly
feeds on dock (Ovis aries L. cv. East Prussian Skudden) was compared to cutting.
Therefore, regeneration of 90 R. obtusifolius plants of three different size classes was
monitored in three plots during three grazing and cutting cycles. Plant height and
number of fruit-stands of regrown R. obtusifolius was significantly lower, number of
leaves significantly higher after grazing than after cutting, while plant diameter was
unaffected. Initially medium and large-sized plants (>40 cm diameter) were signifi-
cantly more sensitive to grazing or cutting than initially smaller sized plants. Soil
nitrate and ammonium concentrations in the vicinity of R. obtusifolius correlated with
some regrowth parameters but were not affected by grazing or cutting. Sheep-grazed
grassland communities comprised fewer legumes (p=0.002), more grasses (p=0.010)
and fewer sward gaps (p=0.025) than cut grassland. At the end of the experiment,
abundance of R. obtusifolius in sheep grazed plots was lower than in cut plots
(p=0.089) suggesting that regrowth potential of this weed was depleted by continuous
grazing and higher sward density. In conclusion, these data suggest that sheep could
be considered in grassland management schemes to both directly and indirectly control
Rumex infestations.
Key words: cultural control, direct weed control, pasture management, ruminant
grazing, weed ecology


There is a general consensus that the essential principle of any program

to control Rumex obtusifolius and the closely related R. crispus L. in

grasslands must be the provision of a dense, vigorous and competitive

sward, achieved by a site-specific stocking system, continuous under-
sowing with certified dock-free seeding material and moderate fertilisa-
tion (Parr and Brockman, 1985; Fisher et al., 1993; Nashiki, 1995;
Novak, 1995; Hopkins et al., 1997). Additional indirect control mea-
sures include prevention of poaching damage by grazing animals or use
of heavy machinery at wet soil conditions, composting of farmyard
manure before application and removal of single R. obtusifolius plants
before they reach seeding stage (Dierauer and Stöppler-Zimmer, 1994).
Research on biocontrol of Rumex species concentrated mainly
on the use of the Coleoptera Gastrophysa viriduala and the rust
fungus Uromyces rumicis (Schumach.) G. Winter, while only a few
studies examined ruminant grazing for R. obtusifolius control (see
Zaller, 2004b). The exclusion of ruminants – and here especially
sheep – in R. obtusifolius control may be due to general reports
that sheep show a selective feeding behaviour (Arnold, 1987; Watt
and Gibson, 1988) and that R. obtusifolius is mainly refused or
consumed only in very young stages by cattle, sheep and horses
(Cavers and Harper, 1964). Despite this, it can be observed that
certain sheep (Ovis aries L.) breeds indeed consume even up to 1.5-
m tall individuals of R. obtusifolius and R. crispus (J. Zaller, per-
sonal observation). At adequate stocking densities, these sheep
additionally provide very dense swards and therefore also alter the
ability of R. obtusifolius to invade these pastures. Grazing animals
have also been shown to be effective weed control agents especially
when grazing timing and intensity and different classes of stock
(e.g., sheep into cattle system) were carefully combined (Popay and
Field, 1996).
Another frequently used method to non-chemically control Rumex
spp. in grasslands is frequent cutting (see Zaller, 2004b). However,
because of the high regenerative ability of this species, very frequent
cuttings would be necessary for a successful control (Courtney, 1985)
making this method economically non-viable. Additionally cutting
frequency has different effects on the two species with R. obtusifolius
showing more regrowth capacity (Hongo, 1987) and seed production
(Hongo, 1988a, b) after cutting than R. crispus. Any removal of
aboveground plant parts through cutting or grazing will deplete carbo-
hydrates stored in shoots and roots (Hidaka, 1973; Lang et al., 1974;
Voigtländer et al., 1976; Nashiki et al., 1998) and decrease seed input
into the soil seedbank (Pino et al., 1994). Cutting height can also influ-
ence morphology (Hopkins and Johnson, 2002) and seed production

(Hongo, 1987) of regrowing R. obtusifolius, but not necessarily its

biomass production (Hopkins and Johnson, 2002). However, due to a
very rapid replenishment of root carbohydrates by R. obtusifolius with-
in 2 (Hidaka, 1973) to 3 weeks (Roberts and Hughes, 1939) even 5–7
cuts per season after 6 years reduced R. obtusifolius abundance in a
grassland only by 60% (Courtney, 1985). Since there is evidence that
regrowth foliage quality from cutting was more suitable for insects and
fungi than that resulting from herbivore damage (Krause and Raffa,
1992; Hatcher, 1995; Karban and Baldwin, 1997; Hatcher and Paul,
2001), there is a possibility that cutting or grazing has also conse-
quences on the impact of insects and fungi attacking these Rumex
The main objectives of this study were to determine whether (1)
grassland management through sheep grazing versus frequent cutting
affects the abundance, development and regeneration of differently
sized broad-leaved dock, (2) whether the soil nutrient content in the
vicinity of Rumex plants determines the regeneration potential of the
individuals and (3) whether sheep grazing or cutting affects the compo-
sition and density of the grassland sward. It is hypothesized that sheep
breeds that have been observed to feed on R. obtusifolius would be
more efficient in controlling this weed than cutting because sheep are
continuously removing newly regrown R. obtusifolius plants and by
this depleting plant resources more efficiently than cutting. Addition-
ally, due to their grazing very close to the soil surface, sheep grazing
would additionally allow clonal grassland species (e.g. Trifolium spp.)
to re-occupy the sites and thus outcompete R. obtusifolius. Sheep will
also increase the nitrogen input into the grassland system and might
therefore favour the regeneration of the nitrophilous Rumex over other
grassland species. Thus, the relationship between Rumex regeneration
and soil nitrate-N and ammonium-N was additionally investigated.

Materials and methods

Site description

The experimental plots are located on permanent grassland of the cer-

tified organic research farm ’Wiesengut’ of the Institute of Organic
Agriculture, University of Bonn, Germany (65 m a.s.l.; 717¢ E,
5048¢ N). This grassland is usually grazed by a cattle herd and addi-
tionally mowed about twice a year. The plant community represents a
fertile Lolio-Cynosuretum with Poa pratensis L., Holcus lanatus L.,

Dactylis glomerata L. and Lolium multiflorum Lam. as the most

abundant grasses, Taraxacum officinale Weber, Plantago lanceolata L.,
Ranunculus repens L. and Veronica chamaedrys L. as the most abun-
dant non-leguminous herbs and Trifolum repens L. and T. pratense L.
as the most abundant leguminous herbs (Terren, 2002). Mean annual
air temperature at this location is 9.5 C, mean annual precipitation is
about 700 mm, the soiltype is a Fluvisol.

Experimental setup

Three 5080 m fenced grassland plots were established in May 2003

on grassland areas that were heavily infested with R. obtusifolius and
maintained since November 2003. Additionally, within each plot a
central 2525 m area was fenced-out. Sheep were allowed to graze
starting in May between the outer and inner fences until all vegeta-
tion higher than about 1 cm above soil surface was removed in that
plot and were then translocated to the next plot. The central fenced
area of each plot was cut about 7 cm above soil surface using a drum
disc-mower when sheep were translocated to other field plots. Each
plot was grazed or mowed three times during the season. Sheep spent
on average 13 days on each plot and vegetation had about 6 weeks to
regrow from grazing or cutting. We used about 60, 2- to 4-year-old
rams of the sheep breed East-Prussian Skudden because this breed is
known to feed non-selectively, there is anecdotical information of a
high tolerance for fibre in its diet and was also observed to
completely remove even mature R. obtusifolius plants on grassland
(J. Zaller, personal observation). These Skudden are a small land-
sheep breed originated in the Baltic Sea area weighting up to 50 kg
and measuring up to 60 cm shoulder height. Only about 160 animals
of this breed could be saved until 1945 but is nowadays saved from
extinction due to activities of a breeding association (http://
www.schafzuchtverband.de). For more information on Skudden see
Sambraus, (2001). During the experiment, sheep were offered miner-
als, water and shade according to organic farming standards. Sheep
were allowed to graze about 8 h per day on the grassland plots and
spent the rest of the day in a stable.

Plant measurements

In order to monitor the regeneration of R. obtusifolius plants after

grazing and cutting, 30 plants in each grassland plot were mapped
both in the grazed and mowed areas using a geographical positioning

system with an accuracy <5 cm (GS50, Leica Geosystems, Heerbrugg,

Switzerland). Of the mapped plants, maximum height, maximum
diameter, number of fruit stands and number of leaves were recorded
before either grazing or cutting of the plots. To analyse the influence
of initial plant size on its regrowth potential, mapped R. obtusifolius
individuals were assigned to three size classes each comprising 10
plants: small, with a maximum plant diameter <40 cm; medium, with
a maximum diameter >40 cm but <70 cm and large, with a maxium
diameter >70 cm. Plants were measured one day before sheep were
put on the particular plots. Effects of cutting or grazing on composi-
tion of grassland communities and sward gaps were measured at 10
randomly chosen locations using a 1-m2 estimation frame.

Soil nitrate-N and ammonium-N contents

Soil samples were collected using a soil corer (diameter 2 cm) from
three locations in a circle of about 5 cm distance to the measured
R. obtusifolius plant at 0–10 cm soil depth immediately after plant
measurements. These samples were pooled, air-dried, sieved (<2 mm)
and analysed for soil pH (glass electrode, 1:10 mass/vol CaCl2
suspension), nitrate-N, ammonium-N concentrations. Nitrate-N and
ammonium-N was analysed on 1% K2SO4 extracts using a continu-
ous flow method on a photometer (type 6010; Skalar, Breda, The
Netherlands; Hoffmann, 1991).

Statistical analyses

Data on R. obtusifolius regeneration (parameter plant height, plant

diameter, number of leaves, number of fruit-stands) and relative
abundance of mapped R. obtusifolius individuals were analysed using
a three-way ANOVA with Block (plot number 1–3) and treatment
(cutting or grazing) and initial plant size (small, medium, large) as
factors with the General Linear Model procedure in SAS (Version
8.02, SAS Institute, Cary, North Carolina, USA). Initial plant size
was included as a covariate in the statistical analysis. Data on the
influence of cutting or grazing on grassland composition and sward
gaps were analysed using a one-way ANOVA in SAS. To assess the
relationships between soil nitrate and ammonium concentrations on
R. obtusifolius regeneration, simple linear regression models were
fitted using data across all dates and treatments. ANOVA was used
to test for the significance of regression coefficients of these linear
models (Zar, 1996). Because in this experiment treatment impact

was measured at the individual plant level concerns of potential

pseudo-replication (e.g., replication applied at the pasture level rather
than at plot level) seem to be negligible.


Across the three dates, R. obtusifolius regeneration was significantly

affected by cutting and/or grazing and was also affected by initial
plant size (Figure 1). Maximum height of regenerated R. obtusifolius
was significantly smaller after grazing than after cutting for initially
medium and large plants (Figure 1). Initially small R. obtusifolius
individuals had similar heights after cutting than after grazing
(Figure 1). Diameter of regenerated R. obtusifolius was similar after
cutting or grazing, however was significantly affected by initial plant
size (Figure 1). Regenerated R. obtusifolius of initial medium and
large size had significantly more leaves after grazing than after cutting
while small sized plants showed similar leaf numbers (Figure 1; mar-
ginally significant interaction between treatments and plant size).
Number of fruit stands was significantly lower after grazing than after
cutting; initial plant size showed no effect on number of fruit stands,
but plant size interacted marginally significantly with cutting or graz-
ing (Figure 1).
Soil nitrate and ammonium concentrations in the vicinity of
R. obtusifolius plants was significantly different between sampling
dates (factor D), however was not affected by cutting or grazing
(factor CG; ANOVA results for nitrate-N: D, p=0.003; CG,
p=0.970; DCG, p=0.998; ammonium-N: D, p=0.013; CG,
p=0.305; DCG, p=0.147; Figure 2). Across dates and treatments,
height of regenerated R. obtusifolius plants correlated well with soil
ammonium-N concentration (r2=0.25, p=0.028) but not with
nitrate-N concentrations (r2=0.09, p=0.408) and number of regen-
erated leaves correlated with soil nitrate-N (r2=0.23, p=0.047) but
not with ammonium-N (r2=0.12, p=0.280; data not shown). Diam-
eter and number fruits of regenerated R. obtusifolius plants were not
correlated with soil nitrate-N or ammonium-N.
During the course of the study several mapped R. obtusifolius
individuals disappeared from the field plots, at the end of the experi-
ment across all plant size classes 28% fewer R. obtusifolius individuals
were present at grazed areas compared to 10% fewer on mowed areas,
however this results was only marginally statistically significant
(Figure 3).

Figure 1. Height, diameter, number of leaves and number of fruit-stands of R. ob-

tusifolius of different initial size (Plsize) regrown after cutting or sheep grazing (CG)
in a permanent grassland. Means±SE (n=3, three dates). p-values derived from
ANOVAs of individual parameters and their interactions (CGPlsize).

Cutting or grazing also influenced sward density and the contri-

bution of grasses, herbs and legumes to the grassland community.
At the end of the season, plots grazed by sheep had significantly
less gaps in the sward than mowed plots (Figure 4). Vegetation
cover by legumes was significantly lower and by grasses signifi-
cantly higher in grazed plots compared to mowed plots; cover by
non-leguminous herbs was unaffected by either cutting or grazing
(Figure 4).

Figure 2. Soil nitrate-N and ammonium-N concentrations in soil samples (0–10 cm

soil depth) taken in the vicinity of R. obtusifolius plants regrown after cutting or
sheep grazing in a permanent grassland. Means±SE (n=3), small error bars are not


In the current experiment, regeneration of R. obtusifolius was signifi-

cantly affected by grassland management. Plants of R. obtusifolius
that regenerated after sheep grazing showed reduced plant height and
number of fruit stands, increased number of leaves but similar plant
diameter compared to plants that regenerated after cutting. As a
consequence less fruit stands after grazing would also mean less seeds
that are potentially available for the dispersion of this weed. An
explanation for the detrimental effects of sheep grazing versus cutting

Figure 3. Relative number of marked R. obtusifolius plants of different initial size

(Plsize) present after three cycles of either cutting or sheep grazing (CG). Means±SE
(n=3), small error bars are not depicted.

Figure 4. Contribution of grasses, non-leguminous herbs and leguminous herbs to a

permanent grassland community and area of sward gaps in this grassland after three
cycles of either cutting or sheep grazing. p-values derived from t-tests between treat-
ments. Means (n=10).

is the hypothesized continuous feeding of sheep on newly resprouting

R. obtusifolius plants as opposed to the less frequent removal of
aboveground plant parts through cutting. Since sheep did not
selectively graze on R. obtusifolius, another explanation is that grazing
was accomplished to a 1-cm stubble height while mowing to 8-cm,
therefore not only frequency but also intensity of R. obtusifolius

removal may account for this effect. Other research which shows that
R. obtusifolius can be better controlled through higher cutting fre-
quencies than through less frequent cuttings (Courtney, 1985; Niggli
et al., 1993; Hopkins and Johnson, 2002) indirectly confirms this.
Because R. obtusifolius is known as a nitrophilous grassland weed,
it was expected that its regeneration and growth is a function of soil
nitrate-N and ammonium-N. Generally there was a slight correlation
between maximum plant height and number of leaves of regenerated
R. obtusifolius plants with either soil nitrate and soil ammonium con-
centrations. However, despite differences in regeneration between
grazed and cut plots, soil nitrate-N and ammonium-N concentrations
in the vicinity of regenerated R. obtusifolius plants was similar. This
suggests that nutrients for regeneration were rather derived from the
remaining roots and rhizomes than from the soil.
Sheep grazing also affected the abundance of R. obtusifolius
plants in grassland plots: in grazed plots almost three times more
R. obtusifolius disappeared during the course of this investigation
than in cut plots. This could also be the consequence of the continu-
ous removal of newly regenerating plant tissue through sheep graz-
ing which could have depleted the reserves of R. obtusifolius and
finally prevented further development of R. obtusifolius individuals.
These results are especially interesting because mainly medium and
larger-sized R. obtusifolius plants disappeared after grazing and could
be explained that our sheep especially chose older R. obtusifolius
plants to meet their high demand of fibre material.
Sheep grazing lead to significantly denser swards with more
grasses, less legumes and less vegetation-free gaps than mowing.
Because R. obtusifolius actively colonizes bare patches in pastures
(Nemoto et al., 1983) and clonal growth is the usual regenerative sys-
tem in swards (Pino et al., 1995), denser swards due to sheep grazing
can prevent the germination and seedling establishment of this weed
species. Additionally, this could indirectly also control R. obtusifolius
through improving the competitive ability of co-occurring plant spe-
cies and reduce germination sites for R. obtusifolius seeds (Panetta
and Wardle, 1992). There is also evidence that a dense sward can lim-
it the growth and establishment of R. obtusifolius from seedlings (e.g.,
Jeangros and Nösberger, 1990) and it could additionally be shown
that the competitive ability of R. obtusifolius regenerating from rhi-
zome fragments could also be significantly altered by management
strategies focussing on improved grassland species performance
(Zaller, 2004a). It remains to be investigated whether R. obtusifolius

seeds consumed by sheep are destroyed in the digestive tract or

further distributed on the grassland. However, even if seeds are not
destroyed in the digestive tract, chances to find a safe site for germi-
nation would be lower in grazed plots because of the higher sward
density. While sward density likely affects R. obtusifolius germination
and seedling development it is probably not an effective control
measure of established dock plants (Niggli et al., 1993).
In the current study, regeneration of R. obtusifolius was also
dependent on plant size prior to removal with individuals >40 cm
showing a higher intensity of herbivory and regeneration of smaller
sized plants remaining mainly unaffected. This shows that larger R.
obtusifolius plants experienced a higher intensity of removal of
aboveground plant mass than smaller plants and also reflects feeding
behaviour of this sheep breed that can even tolerate older R. obtusifo-
lius. However, also our cutting was done at about 8 cm above ground
and thus also affecting larger individuals more than smaller ones
although other studies have shown that cutting height had no consistent
effect on R. obtusifolius biomass production, but R. obtusifolius ramet
density and leaf density in autumn were greater on the 5–6 cm than the
10–12 cm cutting treatment (Hopkins and Johnson, 2002). Other
authors also found that smaller R. obtusifolius plants were encouraged
in frequently-cut swards but were inhibited in infrequently-cut swards
(Hughes et al., 1993). Additionally, leaf growth and seed set in larger
plants has been shown to benefit by infrequent cutting, whereas
frequent cutting prevented seed production but encouraged the regener-
ation of tap roots and aerial branching and thus increasing the potential
for future seed production (Hughes et al., 1993).
Sheep grazing has not been considered as a direct control measure
against R. obtusifolius. This may be due to the fact that sheep are
reported to show a selective feeding behaviour (Arnold, 1987; Watt
and Gibson, 1988) and usually avoid this weed or only consume it in
very early stages. However, the sheep variety, East-Prussian Skudden,
used in the current study are known to be very frugal regarding their
diet and non-selectively feed plant grassland plant species including
mature individuals of R. obtusifolius. This seems to be a feature
especially of older sheep breeds while more modern hybrid varieties
usually have higher requirements on their nutrition and also avoid
R. obtusifolius plants (C. v. Randow, personal communication). There
is also evidence that besides breeds also the history, background and
current physiological state of individual sheep determine their feeding
behaviour (Launchbaugh et al., 2001). It should be noted that in the

current study a herd of 60 male sheep was used and grazing behav-
iour of a sexually mixed herd might be different.
If one seeks to derive a control strategy against this grassland weed
from the current investigation it would be temporal sheep grazing that
combines indirect and direct control strategies through the provision of
a dense sward and the continuous removal of aboveground plant parts.
There is already some evidence that simultaneous grazing by cows and
goats improved R. obtusifolius control better than single grazing by
either cows or goats (Sakanoue et al., 1995; see also Popay and Field,
1996) but there is definitely a need for more detailed research into the
control of this perennial grassland weed through grazing management.
It would also be interesting to explore the efficacy of different sheep
breeds in controlling R. obtusifolius in more detail.
Taken together, the current data suggest that sheep grazing should
be regarded as a control measure against R. obtusifolius in pastures
because it can directly affect the regrowth potential of this species and
indirectly control this species by the provision of a dense grassland
sward which can affect the abundance of this weed in pastures. Thus,
sheep grazing has the potential to be more widely included in pasture
management schemes where there is a need to avoid or reduce
herbicide use.


The author is very grateful to Conrad von Randow for providing the
East-Prussian Skudden and to Joachim Mross, Stefan Doll and
Martin Berg for taking care of them during the course of the experi-
ment. The author also gratefully acknowledges the help of Alexandra
Donati, Britta Staffel, Harriet Leese, Ute Schlee, Birgit Stöcker,
Janine Antosch and Dieter Zedow, for their help in the field and with
laboratory analyses.


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