Professors' research helping Kansas ranchers with invasive weeds



August 16, 2016

Two Wichita State University professors are conducting research on an invasive plant species to assist Kansas ranchers in their practices.

Gregory Houseman, associate professor of biology, and Esra Buyuktahtakin, assistant professor of manufacturing and industrial engineering, received a $430,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for their research on weed management in Kansas rangeland systems.

The research focuses on the invasive weed sericea lespedeza throughout southeast Kansas and assessing its potential effects on natural plant life and grazing, as well as its economic impact on ranchers.

Sericea lespedeza, also commonly known as Chinese bushclover, is pervasive in Kansas rangelands because of its wide seed distribution throughout the Midwest. This poses a number of challenges to ranchers, such as locating the weed in vast landscapes, managing forage reduction and determining the cost of using herbicides to prevent the weed from spreading.

Given the weed’s potential to dramatically increase operational costs for ranchers, Houseman and Buyuktahtakin will conduct field experiments in southeast Kansas to find solutions to reduce economic losses caused by the plant.

They will use the grant to purchase technological resources and fund student assistants, which includes two master’s students and an undergraduate summer assistant for Houseman and a Ph.D. student for Buyuktahtakin.

“We want to develop economic strategies that will allow ranchers to better allocate their time and money,” Houseman says. 

Buyuktahtakin is using her expertise in mathematical optimization to develop a bioeconomic model that will help ranchers forecast the growth patterns of sericea lespedeza and formulate economical approaches to minimizing its growth. The model will ultimately give users the ability to simultaneously diagnose the growth patterns of sericea lespedeza and its potential economic consequences.

Houseman and Buyuktahtakin plan to use the data collected from the field experiments to test the model’s effectiveness and refine it to accommodate data collected from similar plant species in changing land conditions.

“We’re hoping to discover a biological weakness for sericea lespedeza that landowners could use to reduce spreading without relying on expensive and potentially harmful chemicals,” says Houseman. “It would be a huge economic benefit, but it would also be an ecological one.”

With a functioning bioeconomic model, Houseman and Buyuktahtakin hope ranchers will be able to develop cost-effective approaches to locating sericea lespedeza as well as other weed species and treating them while maintaining a healthy ranching ecosystem.