Farmers using no-till production can reduce herbicide use and still maintain crop yields by implementing integrated weed-management methods, according to a new study by Penn State researchers.
When farmers are no longer using tillage to disrupt weed growth, they typically use more herbicides to control weeds, says he study’s lead author, Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production/ecology at Penn State University.
“Farmers are particularly reliant on a few common herbicides for no-till production of corn and soybeans, such as glyphosate, which has resulted in the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds that are now very problematic,” she said. “With more than 65% of agronomic crops under no-till production in Pennsylvania, those weeds are spreading, reducing crop yields and becoming very difficult to control.”
To test whether herbicide applications could be reduced in no-till production, researchers conducted a nine-year experiment using herbicide-reduction practices in a dairy crop rotation.
The rotation included soybean, corn with fall-planted cover crops, and three years of alfalfa, followed by winter canola. The following practices were used to reduce herbicide inputs: applying herbicides only in bands over corn and soybean rows and using high-residue, inter-row cultivation; seeding a small-grain companion crop such as oats with perennials alfalfa and orchardgrass; and plowing once in six years to terminate the perennial forage rather than killing it with an herbicide.
These practices were compared with standard herbicide-based weed management in continuous no-till, which consists of repeated herbicide applications. To measure the results, researchers sampled weed biomass in soybean, corn and the first two alfalfa forage years.
The researchers reported that there was more weed biomass in the reduced herbicide treatment, leading to more weeds over the years in the reduced-herbicide corn and soybean treatments – but that the added weed pressure did not substantially affect crop yields or differences in net return. In the following alfalfa forage seeding year, weed biomass was rarely greater in the reduced-herbicide treatment, and was never greater by the second year of alfalfa forage.
Crop yield and differences in net return were similar in most crops and years, Karsten pointed out, explaining that the research results suggest that using an integrated-weed-management approach with reduced herbicide inputs can be effective.