Eastern red cedar is a friend or foe, depending on whom you ask.

For some landowners, this shrubby evergreen has been a popular, hardy species for windbreak plantings and wildlife habitat. An estimated 1.2 million eastern red cedar seedlings were planted annually from the 1980s through the '90s in Nebraska.

But the lack of fire — which historically controlled the encroachment of cedar into grasslands — has created an eastern red cedar invasion across much of the Great Plains. Thus, to more and more landowners, the tree is a foe that competes with grasses and ultimately reduces forage production and land values.

“Fire suppression over the years has allowed eastern red cedar to invade prairies,” says Amy Ganguli, an Oklahoma State University doctorate candidate researching the subject.

Ganguli says birds have transported eastern red cedar seed long distances. And cedars can establish in a wide range of areas, from shallow, rocky sites to productive grasslands.

“The key to preventing eastern red cedar invasion is early detection and prompt action,” says Ganguli. “It's an easy species to control because it's not a resprouter.”

University of Nebraska weed scientist Stevan Knezevic agrees.

“It's important to control cedars while they are small seedlings,” says Knezevic.

Red cedars can grow an average of 1' per year, so they can quickly get out of control, he adds.

Knezevic frequently gets calls from landowners in Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin wondering how to get rid of cedars. His advice is to use an integrated approach.

“There are several control strategies: cutting, mowing, fire, goats and herbicides,” he says. “Each has benefits and concerns, but using a combination of methods will get the best results.”

Knezevic says the control strategy should be based on tree size.

  • For effective herbicide control, trees should be no more than 2' tall. He says broadcast herbicides such as Surmount, Grazon P+D and Tordon 22K work well when applied according to label directions. They also work for individual treatment of trees up to 6' tall.

  • In less-severe infestations of small trees, they can be pulled or dug up. Or they can be mowed with mower blades set close to the soil surface or below the lowest branches.

  • Periodic prescribed fire is the least-expensive option to help eliminate small red cedars and other noxious weed seeds. Knezevic says to burn once or twice in a three- to five-year period to control seedlings.

  • Grazing goats with cattle can also help eliminate small trees. Goats will eat cedars and noxious weeds, but won't compete with cattle for grasses.

  • For trees 6-10' or taller, cutting appears most economical, according to Knezevic. Treating individual trees with chemicals or using fire can also work, but will leave the dead trees standing for several years.

  • Another option: Cut out only the female, or berry-producing, trees. That will reduce tree populations and prevent further cedar spreading while maintaining a wildlife habitat.