A simple tool to explore alternative weed management strategies

Bryan Brown, Ph.D. Candidate

Eric Gallandt, Professor of Weed Ecology and Management

 

Weed management philosophies and employed strategies have inherent tradeoffs.  A surprising result from our field studies conducted in organic onion was the impressive performance of zero seed rain and mulch-based strategies, which performed better than expected even in the first year of use.

 

Below is a screenshot from the Excel-based decision aid, which can be downloaded here.

Picture1.pngRequires Microsoft Excel. Runs with macros enabled or disabled.  Note:  This decision aid is for educational purposes only. Results should be interpreted with an understanding that each farm is unique and this decision aid may not accurately represent the conditions present at each farm. Downloading the decision aid represents an acceptance of these terms.

A Comparison of Organic Weed Management Strategies in Onions

Bryan Brown, Ph.D. Student, and Eric Gallandt, Associate Professor

 What’s your strategy for managing weeds? Cultivate until the crop is large enough to tolerate late-emerging weeds, sometimes returning to harvest from a dense patch of weeds? Cultivate season long and pull any mature weeds as part of a longer-term strategy to prevent weed seed rain and make weeding easier and less costly over time? Intensively mulch to prevent weeds, perhaps improve soil quality, and reduce labor demands for weeding later in the season?

There are successful organic farmers who rely on each of these strategies, some using different strategies for different crops, others with a singular focus. Clearly there is no “best” strategy, but rather, trade-offs and compromises associated with each. Our aim with this field study comparing weed management systems is to quantify multiple dimensions of each system so farmers can evaluate and choose a strategy that is best aligned with their own philosophy, priorities and infrastructure constraints.

which strategy

Using yellow storage onions as our test crop (planted with two onions per hole, spaced 6” apart within rows and 3 rows per bed) on a field with a moderate weed seedbank at the University of Maine Rogers Farm, we implemented several prominent strategies:

1) Critical Period Weed Control (CPWC) – Control weeds only during the crop’s sensitive adolescent stage. This is the minimum amount of weeding you can do and still get a viable crop. However, it allows late-season weeds to go to seed.

2) Zero Seed Rain (ZSR) – Frequent cultivation with the goal of not letting any weeds set seed so that none “rain” to the ground. A strategy expected to be initially costly, but with decreasing cost over time as weed pressure declines.

3) Black Plastic Mulch (BPM) – Suppresses weeds and warms soil. Requires cultivation for the paths.

4) Black Plastic Mulch with Straw-Mulched Paths (BPMSP) – Suppresses weeds in the path as well; added organic matter in the paths.

5) Straw Mulch – Suppresses weeds and adds organic matter to the soil. Applied by hand in June after soil has warmed and onions are approximately the diameter of a pencil.

6) Junk Hay Mulch – Similar to straw but less expensive.

  Aside from primary and secondary tillage and application of plastic mulch, all activities were done by hand. Cultivation was achieved by wheel hoeing the paths, scuffle hoeing the shoulders and between rows, and using short-handled hoes for within rows. Drip irrigation was used to keep soil moisture levels optimum for each plot.

labor by activity

Labor by Activity from our 2014 field season (above) demonstrates that CPWC plots required the least amount of labor. Although they were weeded clean through early July, by the end of the season these plots were a weedy mess, and resultantly, had the longest harvest times. In the spring of 2015 we will collect soil samples to see how much weed seed was added to the seedbank.

In ZSR plots, weeding events took place about every ten days in the early- and mid-season, depending on weather, and less often later in the season as weed germination slowed.

Plastic-mulched plots required three hand-weedings to control the crabgrass coming through the planting holes, suggesting that plastic might be better suited to crops with wider spacing. Also, transplanting by hand took longer in plastic mulch. Soil temperatures under the black plastic were consistently 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the others. Onions under black plastic matured several weeks earlier, which may have contributed to the decreased yield. The BPMSP required the lowest amount of weeding labor of all strategies.

We used high quality oat straw mulch that didn’t have any weed seed but it did bring in a lot of oat seed (112 seeds/lb) that germinated within the mulch and forced us to hand pull twice. The straw mulch was much easier to apply than the junk hay, which stuck together. The junk hay mulch brought in a lot of weed seed (170 seeds/lb) but few weeds emerged through the mulch.

Not surprisingly, at the end of the season, mulched plots had less compacted soil and better water infiltration than unmulched plots. Plots with organic mulch had more earthworms than the others.

After harvest, the onions were cured in a greenhouse and weighed to measure marketable yield. Insect damage and disease were minimal for all strategies.

Breakdown of Net Income

In the Breakdown of Net Income (above), labor costs were set at $10/hour. Materials costs included fertility, mulches, tractor use, and an estimate of curing, packing, and shipping costs. Sales were calculated by assuming that 90% of the cured marketable yield could be sold at the organic wholesale price of $0.75/lb. Net income was determined as the difference between sales and costs of labor and materials.

It was surprising that the strategies typically used for long-term aims of reducing the weed seedbank (ZSR) or building soil quality (organic mulches), were the most profitable in the first year of implementation. That these more expensive strategies were more profitable than the others demonstrates the importance of high yields.

The CPWC was the lowest yielding strategy, indicating that the weed control period was not long enough. Based on growing-degree-days we expect that the onions should have been weeded through late July to avoid yield loss. This highlights the sensitivity of onions to competition.

In 2015, soil samples will be collected to determine the effects of the contrasting weed management strategies on the weed seedbank and soil organic matter. The onion experiment will also be repeated on a new field to show which results are consistent and which results are subject to yearly variation, so stay tuned for this season’s results!

Innovations in Electric Weeders!

After years of searching for innovations in hand tools, my students informed me of two tools I had not seen previously.  We are hoping to acquire these for 2014 field testing, comparing efficacy and working rates to Glaser wheel hoes and the Weed Master.

First, from France, the Pellenc Cultivator.  A battery-powered scuffle hoe, that looks very intriguing:

The second, from the U.S., Tillie and Solus, the Electric Wheel Hoe, from Carts & Tools:

https://cartsandtools.com/

 

And, this is what I’m hoping to add to the Weed Master!

 

 

 

Weed Master Video Update!

We are wrapping up the final reports for our NE SARE-funded project that supported our on-farm trials of the Weed Master.  In addition to inspiring this blog, we used this project as a test case for using video to capture the on-farm trials and experiences of participating growers and our research group.  Tavi Merrill, who recently graduated from the University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture undergraduate program, has done a fine job of directing and editing these videos.

We are continuing our field research on hand tools and scale-appropriate weeding tools for the small farm.  Ben Costanzi is a new M.S. student who will focus on this topic for his thesis work.

You can view the most recent videos below, or go to our YouTube Channel:

http://www.youtube.com/user/zeroseedrain

 

Prologue to the Weed Master Project

 

Weed Master Field Trial:  Fisher Farm

 

Weed Master Field Trial:  Fail Better Farm


Weed Seedbanks: 2009 On-farm Sampling

Seedbanks
“Credits” to the weed seedbank occur when weeds shed seed, i.e., seed rain, and “debits” when seeds are removed from the soil by germination, predation, or decay/death, in this declining order of importance.
Seedbanks on the Beech Grove, New Leaf and Peacemeal Farms
During the 2009 field season we visited Eric and Anne Nordell of the Beech Grove Farm in Trout Run, PA, Dave and Christine Colson of New Leaf Farm in Durham, ME, and Mark Guzzie and Marcia Ferry of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, ME, to collect soil samples from selected fields.  At each sampled location on each farm we collected ten soil cores (6.5 cm diam. x 10 cm deep) from a 25 square meter area.  Soil samples were sieved to remove stones and spread over a layer of vermiculite and placed in a greenhouse.  Weed seedlings were identified, recorded and removed weekly.  The soil was allowed to dry and was then mixed and replaced in the flats once a month for four months.
Weed communities were comprised of an average 8 to 10 species on each farm (see Table, below).  The three most abundant species at the Peacemeal Farm are troublesome in most vegetable crops and are a widespread problem among northeastern vegetable growers.  At the New Leaf Farm, smooth crabgrass was the top-ranked species, primarily because of a large infestation in a field where pigs had been pastured.  Low cudweed and corn spurry, while a problem in salad mix, are not particularly troublesome in most other vegetable crops.  At the Beech Grove Farm, typically pernicious summer annual weeds were rare and not among the top ranked species.

Typical samples are shown below.  These photos were taken after approximately 4 weeks in the greenhouse.  They offer a visual representation of the “low,” “medium,” and “high” seedbanks measured on these farms.

Seedbank Management

Managing weeds with a focus on the seedbank looks at the farming system with an eye first towards opportunities for preempting seed rain with short-season cash or cover crops that are harvested or terminated before troublesome weed species produce mature seeds.  Next, opportunities for shallow soil disturbance, strategically-timed to be coincident with weed species-specific peak emergence potential, will encourage germination.  Subsequent disturbance events can kill these “flushes” of weeds.  When seed rain occurs, opportunities for predation are greater if seeds remain on the soil surface.  This hypothesis, that fall tillage should be delayed to encourage seed predation is the focus of current field studies.

For more information see:

Managing weeds with crop rotation

http://www.newenglandvfc.org/pdf_proceedings/2009/MWWCR.pdf

and these eXtension articles:

Manage the Weed Seed Bank—Minimize “Deposits” and Maximize “Withdrawals”

http://www.extension.org/article/18527

Manipulating Weed Seed Banks to Promote their Decline

http://www.extension.org/article/18528