UD weed research extends knowledge to organic farmers

September 11, 2013 in Feature

On Wednesday afternoon, September 4, 2013, the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension hosted an Organic and Sustainable Agronomic Field Tour at the University of Delaware’s Carvel Research & Education Center in Georgetown, Del.

Mark VanGessel explains how a high residue cultivator was used during the ROSE program

Mark VanGessel explains how a high-residue cultivator was used during the ROSE program

ROSE - crop rotationMark VanGessel, Extension weed specialist, provided a review of the university’s role and experiences as part of a multi-state, three-year project examining reduced tillage for organic corn and soybean production. The field tour provided organic growers an opportunity to see firsthand the results from the Delaware site with the ROSE (Reduced-tillage Organic Systems Experiment) program.

ROSE was developed at Penn State at State College in 2005 and in 2010, expanded to USDA Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland and UD.  Together, the three locations provided diverse growing conditions to study and compare before recommending best practices to organic farmers.

Because organic farmers do not use herbicides, finding an alternative method to control weeds is paramount. Cover crops, grown so that the vegetation can be rolled to form a dense weed barrier, shows promise – but it is the balance between quantity and quality, and determining the right equipment, that can make weed control management challenging.

cover crop

Attendees at the Organic and Sustainable Agronomic Field Tour closely examine the results rolled cover crop after a planter was used in demonstration

Research partners in the ROSE program, left to right,  Lauren Young, USDA-Beltsville, Mark Dempsey, Penn State, Ron Hoover, Penn State, Mark VanGessel, University of Delaware, Clair Keene, Penn State, William Curran, Penn State.

Research partners in the ROSE program, left to right, Lauren Young, USDA-Beltsville, Mark Dempsey, Penn State, Ron Hoover, Penn State, Mark VanGessel, University of Delaware, Clair Keene, Penn State, William Curran, Penn State

Representing the program for Penn State University  were Bill Curran, professor of weed science and Extension specialist, Ron Hoover, senior project coordinator  Clair Keene, Ph.D. candidate and Mark Dempsey, senior research technician. Lauren Young, agricultural science research technician represented USDA-ARC. VanGessel also acknowledged Steven Mirsky, USDA-ARS and Mary Barbercheck, professor of Entomology at Penn State for crucial work on the project, as well as his UD team, Quintin Johnson, Extension agent, Barbara Scott, research associate and Vic Green, researcher and assistant farm manager at Carvel.

In the ROSE experiment, winter wheat in the fall harvest, hairy vetch, and triticale were planted. The following spring, corn was planted, and after harvest, a cover crop of cereal rye was planted before soybeans. The rotation then begins over with winter wheat.  “We are relying heavily on our cover crop for weed control and trying to supplement that by high-residue cultivation,” VanGessel said.

An integral focus of the study looked how equipment could be put to best practice. Setting up the planter to seed into heavy crop residues was one challenge.

High-residue cultivator with on-board guidance system provides accuracy in row cultivation

“We had a lot of equipment issues,” VanGessel  remarked of the study. “We had a steep learning curve.”

Bill Curran takes a closer look at UD's high-residue cultivator

Bill Curran takes a closer look at UD’s high-residue cultivator

VanGessel and his team accepted the issues as learning opportunity. Roller crimpers, modifying a planter to handle high levels of crop biomass, and a high-residue cultivator were demonstrated at the tour to show both their specialized use, and on occasion, limitations. What worked for Penn State did not necessarily work in Delaware, due to weather and different soil profiles.

Most of the agricultural  equipment demonstrated during the tour is equipped with ECO-DAN guidance systems which continually takes pictures of the row, providing precision results and less mechanical damage to the crop. “We thought we needed to have a guidance system to maintain consistency, especially with different operators, ” VanGessel said. The on-board optics keeps the cultivation straight, VanGessel explained.

“This has been a great experience for our research and extension programs at UD. It has been a challenge to reduce tillage within an organic grain production system,” VanGessel said.”There is a lot of work that still needs to be done to ensure this approach can be successful. But this project has provided us with a solid base from which to improve organic grain production for this region.”

Click here for additional pictures of the field tour.

Article and photos by Michele Walfred