Living Acres

Blog: In The Field

Aug. 29, 2016
Small Milkweed Plantings
Living Acres: The Research

Over the last year, BASF has taken to the research fields to find the best practices for planting milkweed. The first trial took place during the summer of 2015 in Holly Springs, North Carolina. This initial study had one goal in mind: figure out how to grow milkweed.

During the inaugural Living Acres research trial, scientists at BASF observed the way milkweed plants were established from various methods of planting, such as planting seeds, root stalk or transplants. They planted two species of milkweed, common milkweed and butterfly milkweed. The first year of research found that milkweed is quite difficult to grow from seed. The milkweed plants of either species that did best were those that grew from transplants. Root stalk and then seeds were the next most successful plantings. Since seedlings require a time-intensive process to begin, the recommendation from this initial study is to plant milkweed root stalk sections for the easiest and most successful start to a milkweed stand.

Much to their surprise, researchers found monarch butterflies on the plants the first year including larvae and several chrysalides. Many of the chrysalides found on the Holly Springs farm were several feet away from the milkweed plot. After doing a bit of secondary research, the team found that monarch larvae can crawl hundreds of feet from where they hatch to find safe places to undergo metamorphosis.

This summer, two additional milkweed research plots were planted at the Seymour, Illinois and Story City, Iowa research farms. These two news plots, as well as the Holly Springs plot, were planted in non-cropland areas around the farm. Ditches, river embankments and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) lands were utilized to demonstrate where a farmer might plant milkweed and the trials they might face in establishing milkweed in these areas.

And the plots were not without trials. The milkweed in Story City was hit with a heavy hail storm soon after planting and then contended with a period of significant drought. The milkweed at the Seymour location had fierce competition from the existing plants and grasses in the CRP land.

There were surprises with these plots as well. The CRP land in Seymour was already chock-full of native common milkweed plants, with some even crossing paths with the research plots planted there.

The official findings from these plots are still pending, but there have been takeaways from this summer’s research. There does not appear to be any encroachment of milkweed into production fields, as seen by the native milkweed in Seymour. Young milkweed plants started from seedling transplants or root stalk are more competitive than expected, even under significant stress. Next spring will reveal whether milkweed suffering hail and drought damage can rebound to produce strong, healthy plants that can support monarch butterfly reproduction.

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Aug. 19, 2016
Aerial view of a farm in the winter
Where to Plant Milkweed

By identifying and planting milkweed in land not used for crops, American farmers can play a key role in maintaining and restoring the monarch population. Besides creating a habitat for butterflies, cultivating milkweed and nectar plants in non-crop areas provides a wide range of environmental benefits, including pollination and natural pest control.
When first considering planting milkweed, some farmers might not realize how many non-crop areas actually exist as options. However, after inspection, there are quite a few non-crop areas on farms where it is advantageous to plant milkweed, including:

  • Grassy areas between grain bins or next to tractor sheds
  • Around garden edges
  • Unproductive portions of fields where there is little encroachment into a clean field
  • Alongside alleyways, fencerows, roadsides or in ditches
  • Near railroad and power transmission rights-of-way
  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands
  • In between brushy or wooded areas

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, nearly 9 million highway miles exist in the United States. In addition, there are more than 5 million acres of land within utility rights-of-way. By planting milkweed and other nectar plants in these types of areas, farmers are supporting both biodiversity and a flourishing monarch butterfly population.

Creating a successful monarch habitat takes as little as a few square feet. The ideal location is a sunny spot that offers some protection from the wind as most milkweed species seem to thrive in open areas that have full sun exposure. Sunny, open locations also make it easier for the monarchs to spot the milkweed.

Be sure to select milkweed species that are native to the location where they will be planted. Growing milkweeds within their native range means the plants will adapt well to soil and weather conditions and require less maintenance.

(Note: Avoid planting milkweed in livestock-grazing land because of the potential toxicity of milkweed to mammals.)

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