Hutchinson — Farmers and ranchers across Kansas are locked in battle this spring with a gangly, purple-headed monster: the musk thistle.
A 19th-century European import that made its first recorded Kansas appearance in 1932, the musk thistle typically is most troublesome in northern and eastern parts of the state.
But cool, wet weather this spring has promoted the weed's growth in south-central and southwestern Kansas as well.
"Usually in the dry years, musk thistles might be less than a foot tall with only one little flower on it," said Jeff Stout, director of the Ford County Noxious Weed Department.
"Now that we've had a lot of moisture, we're seeing them 4 and 5 feet tall," Stout said. "They're big and pretty, but it's a real enough problem."
Kansas law declares musk thistle a "noxious weed," meaning it is difficult and expensive to control and is capable of posing a risk of economic loss to agriculture. Property owners are required to eradicate noxious weeds, and may be billed if county crews wind up doing the work.
Each purple blossom of the musk thistle contains about 10,000 seeds that can be carried several miles on the wind. Once the plant takes root in a pasture, it can spread quickly, creating a tangle of needle-sharp stems and leaves that livestock won't enter.
"I've seen pictures where farmers had to mow a path to the barn so their cattle could feed. Cattle just won't walk through them," Stout said.
Jay Burns, Reno County's noxious-weed director, said recent rains created a bumper crop of musk thistles, some of which towered nearly 8 feet tall.
The department has found musk thistles in about 150 locations in the county and already has treated 120 percent more acreage than in 2000, the latest year statistics were available.
"We dug up some plants 12 miles north of here, and that's probably where they came from," Burns said, pointing to the thistles he had just sprayed with herbicide.