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Is crop rotation an economic option for managing weeds?

With Tony Swan, Senior Experimental Scientist, CSIRO Agriculture

While wheat is the dominant commodity in Australia’s grain production systems, sowing consecutive wheat crops results in reduced production and profitability due to the effects of diseases, pests, weeds and declining nutrition.

Adding a broadleaf break crop to the cropping sequence helps keep wheat profitable in a sustainable cropping system.

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Tony Swan, CSIRO says their 5-year GRDC funded project illustrated that adding at least one break crop, and preferably two, to the crop rotation was beneficial for weed control and nitrogen management, and can be as profitable or more profitable than continuous wheat. A series of experiments were established to challenge the idea that break crops are risky and not profitable.

“Many farmers in south-east Australia are sceptical about growing break crops such as pulses and canola,” says Tony. “The problem is, once high populations of herbicide resistant annual ryegrass become apparent, the profitability of continuous wheat significantly reduces.”

“Rotations that include a break crop in paddocks with high populations of resistant annual ryegrass were more profitable than continuous wheat and had significantly less ryegrass numbers after three years, provided all the available tactics were used to reduce germination and prevent seed set,” he says. “Our experiments demonstrated that it is cheaper and more effective to control ryegrass using one of the many break crop options than attempting to achieve control in wheat using expensive herbicides.”

What break crop options did you trial?

Short answer: RR canola, TT canola, lupins for grain, field peas for brown manure, fallow and wheat cut for hay.

Longer answer: The combination of a fallow or break crop in year 1 followed by a second break crop in year 2 resulted in the greatest reduction in annual ryegrass seed bank population and panicle number after 3 years. This sequence was significantly more profitable than continuous wheat, but not as profitable as a RR canola–wheat (high input) –wheat rotation.

What was the most effective option in a weedy situation?

Short answer: A 2-year break crop option.

Longer answer: The double break rotations of lupins grown for grain followed by RR canola, or RR canola followed by wheat cut for hay provided a very high level of weed control while also generating high average annual 3-year gross margins of $790/ha/yr and $834/ha/yr, respectively. This compared to the most profitable 3-year sequence of RR canola followed by wheat (high input) / wheat of $883/ha/year. However, this sequence did not achieve the same reduction in annual ryegrass and grass herbicides cost over $140/ha in the wheat crops. Sequences that included fallow or brown manures followed by RR canola were extremely effective at reducing the annual ryegrass seed bank but were not as profitable as continuous cropping.

Where herbicide resistant annual ryegrass is a major problem, an alternate three year sequence of wheat-hay (sprayed afterwards) in year 1, pulse-grain (spray topped) in year 2, and RR canola in year 3 can be profitable and also reduce the seed bank to extremely low levels.

A two-year break crop can break the weed cycle without breaking the bank.

A two-year break crop can break the weed cycle without breaking the bank.

What is the key recommendation from this trial work for annual ryegrass control?

Short answer: Two consecutive years of total annual ryegrass control using break crops and implementing all available weed seed control options.

Longer answer: Break crops work and can be profitable. Two or more years of effective ryegrass control using break crops and other management options including strongly competitive crops, rotating herbicide groups, pre and post emergent timing and prevention of seed set using crop topping, hay making and brown manuring along with fallow management and harvest weed seed control such as narrow windrow burning.

How to ask WeedSmart a question

Ask your questions about using break crops to manage annual ryegrass on Facebook or Twitter @WeedSmartAU or leave a comment below.

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How do you manage summer weeds without spraying at night?

Concerns are being raised about the practical implications of this for summer weed control programs. Mary O’Brien, a private consultant with extensive experience in managing spray drift, is keen to see growers fully adopt spray application practices that maximise herbicide efficacy and minimise off-target drift.   Mary O’Brien says the ‘community drift’ that can occur when a number of applicators are each putting a small amount of product in the air at the same time can have very damaging effects on off-target sites. “The bottom line is that allowing spray to drift is like burning money,” she says. “Any product that doesn’t hit the target is wasted and the efficacy of the spray job is reduced, mildly resistant biotypes may survive as a result of low dose application and there is potential damage to sensitive crops and the environment.” “The difficulty is that many growers want to spray at night to cover more ground when conditions are cooler and potentially weeds are less stressed. Having a restriction on night spraying does restrict the time available to cover the areas required.” Having heard these concerns from growers across the country Mary keeps coming back to the fact that if there was a limitation to capacity at planting or at harvest, growers would scale up to get the job done in a timely manner. “Buying another spray rig or employing a contractor is an additional cost, especially after a couple of tough seasons, but I really think this is insignificant against the cost of losing key products and the resultant escalation in herbicide resistance to the remaining herbicides,” says Mary. “This problem is not confined to 2,4-D or even to herbicides. I recently spoke to a stone fruit grower who was forced to dump his whole crop after a positive MRL return for a fungicide he had never even heard of, let alone used.” What about just slowing down and lowering the boom during night spraying? Short answer: This, coupled with a good nozzle, will reduce drift but it will never eliminate it. Longer answer: The correct ground speed and boom height will have a large effect on the amount of product that remains in the air. The problem is that it only takes 1 per cent of the product remaining in the air to cause off-target damage. Once there are a few operators putting just 1 per cent of their product in the air at the same time, the amount of product quickly accumulates and can potentially be very damaging. Mary calls this ‘community drift’. Isn’t it better to spray weeds at night when it’s cooler? Short answer: Not really. Longer answer: Research by Bill Gordon showed that even if you keep everything else the same, night spraying can put at least three times more product in the air than daytime application, even if weather conditions are similar and there is no temperature inversion in place. The main difference between day and night is how the wind is moving across the landscape, rather than the wind speed. Under inversion conditions, the air moves parallel to the ground surface and this means that the product can move significant distances away from the target before coming to the ground. To achieve the best results through daytime spraying, applicators should focus on treating small, actively growing weeds. When there is good soil moisture, weeds are unlikely to be stressed even when the temperature is quite high. Temperature inversion conditions are more common at night and in the early morning. These conditions generate a laminar flow of air across the landscape allowing small droplets to travel many kilometres away from the target site before coming to ground. Can I use other products at night and just avoid using 2,4-D? Short answer: The current changes to 2,4-D labels has drawn a lot of attention but the problem is the same for all crop protection sprays – herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Longer answer: Different products have different properties and some may work better at night but the problem is the sensitivity of some crops to certain products, such as 2,4-D. All products are tested for their efficacy and the label provides detailed information about the required spray quality and spray application conditions. Many products have explicit label instructions regarding wind speed, temperature inversions (or laminar flow) and night spraying. Given the high risk of drift at night, applicators need to be very confident that there is no inversion present, and weather conditions should be measured at least every 15 minutes to ensure wind speed remains above 11 kilometres per hour. An on-board weather station is the best way to monitor conditions. A visual demonstration using smoke to simulate the the lateral movement of small spray droplets when a temperature inversion is in place. What can I do to improve spray efficacy and avoid spray drift? Short answer: If you do just one thing – change your nozzle. Longer answer: All the factors that increase drift also reduce efficacy. To improve efficacy and reduce drift, use a better nozzle (larger spray quality) and appropriate water rates (matched to spray quality and stubble load), slow down and keep the boom low. Wind is required to push product downward and onto the target, and remember that the 3–15 km/h wind speed is for day time conditions only, this does not apply at night.
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Testing for herbicide resistance

“Testing takes the guesswork out of the equation and gives farmers baseline information that they can use to monitor changes in the weeds on their farms,” he said. “If low level resistance is identified early there are many more management options available compared to situations where full blown resistance has taken hold.” Dr Boutsalis said the over use and over reliance on particular herbicides will unavoidably lead to herbicide resistance developing. “We often hear of farmers applying herbicide even though they are not sure if it will work,” he said. The $300 to $400 cost of testing is insignificant compared to the cost of wasted herbicide, lost production and the costs of driving down a large seed bank of resistant weeds. What herbicide resistance tests are available to farmers in Australia? Short answer: The ‘quick’ test using the whole plant and the ‘seed’ test. Longer answer: The ‘quick’ test uses plant samples collected on farm and sent to the laboratory. The plants are revived and planted into pots then tested against the required herbicides. The ‘seed’ test requires the collection of ripe seed, which is planted out at the laboratory. After dormancy has been broken and the seedlings have started to grow they are tested for their response to herbicides. Both tests are equally accurate. The ‘quick’ test can not test for resistance to some pre-emergent herbicides, such as trifluralin. Which is the most common test that farmers use? Short answer: The seed test. Longer answer: Collecting seed before or at harvest is the most common method used. The collected seed must be mature, from green to when the seed changes colour. Before harvest collect 30 to 40 ryegrass seedheads or several handfuls of wild oats seed. After harvest it is common to find seedheads still in the paddock or samples of contaminated grain can be sent for analysis. Where is the best place to collect samples? Short answer: From suspicious or high risk areas. Longer answer: Herbicide resistance can develop in high risk areas like fencelines or at random through a paddock. Visual observations and changes on the yield monitor in the header can indicate good places to collect seed. If collecting plant samples, look for weeds at the early tillering stage that appear to have ‘escaped’ previous herbicide treatment. Collect 50 to 100 small plants or fewer larger plants. Shake off the soil from the roots, place in a plastic bag and send to the laboratory. What’s involved in sending samples? Short answer: Pick, pack, register and ship. Longer answer: Each sample needs to arrive at the laboratory with suitable identification and instructions. Register the samples online to get a unique sample number and to provide the information required, such as which herbicides you want to test against. Plant Science Consulting and Charles Sturt University both offer commercial herbicide resistance seed testing. Find the details under Point 4 of the 10 Point Plan on the WeedSmart website.   How to ask a WeedSmart question Ask your questions about the spread of herbicide resistance, or any herbicide resistance management strategy, using this blog or using Twitter @WeedSmartAU.

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Increase pre-em efficacy through a mix and rotate strategy

Part 1: Control summer weeds for yield and profit Every $1 spent on summer weed control can potentially return up to $8/ha through moisture and nitrogen conservation. The impact on grain yield as a result of various summer weed control treatments is what Colin McMaster (NSW DPI R&D) refers to as “buying a spring”.  Listen to Colin and Pete Newman (AHRI) as they investigate the $$ benefits of controlling summer weeds. Resources: Ask an Expert column with Colin McMaster GRDC Summer Fallow Weed Management Manual   Part 2: Increase pre-em efficacy through a mix and rotate strategy We’ve done a good job of promoting herbicide rotation over the years. And whilst this advice still stands, recent research shows the benefits of mixing herbicides as well. As American weeds researcher, Pat Tranel, puts it, “rotating buys you time, mixing buys you shots (of herbicide)”. Listen to Pat and Pete as they explore the benefits of the mix and rotate strategy.
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Post emergent herbicides

Resources Spray resistant radish early for best efficacy and yield (Grant Thompson, Crop Updates paper 2014) Herbicide resistant wild radish (Peter Newman) Controlling herbicide resistant Wild Radish in wheat in the Northern Agricultural Region of WA with a two spray strategy (Peter Newman) Diverse weed control: Left jab, right hook (AHRI insight)   Part 2:When is it worth rotating from clethodim (Select®) to butroxydim (Factor®)? Is there any value in rotating the post-emergent herbicides clethodim (Select®) and butroxydim (Factor®)? The research suggests that Factor® will sometimes kill plants that are moderately-resistant to Select® that could help in driving down the weed seed bank. Dr Peter Boutsalis from the University of Adelaide discusses his latest research and observations using both products with AHRI’s Peter Newman.

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Double breaks – a double shot at annual ryegrass

Perhaps you’re a ‘short black’ wheat-canola type, strong on inputs? Or a ‘long black’ type who likes to dilute their rotations a bit more? Or are you a ‘double shot’, throwing in a few break crops in a row for maximum effect? When it comes to managing annual ryegrass populations, Tony Swan and the research team from CSIRO Plant Industry and FarmLink, have shown that ‘double shots’ are the key. Growing two break crops in sequence (broadleaf crop, hay crop or long fallow) was more effective in reducing resistant ryegrass numbers to manageable levels than a single break crop or continuous wheat over a three-year rotation. And it can still be profitable.
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RIM: Ryegrass Integrated Management

RIM is a hands on, user-friendly decision support software that allows farmers and advisors to evaluate the long-term cropping profitability of strategic and tactical ryegrass control methods, on the long-term and at the paddock scale. RIM lets you test your ideas: How can you run your ryegrass down and profit up? New rotation? New technique? View the full video here
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AHRI features

Sustaining herbicides with harvest weed seed management Rotate, rotate, rotate! Incorporating non-chemical harvest weed seed control methods into cropping systems provides another set of tools to fight weeds and to delay the onset of herbicide resistance. View full video at the AHRI website

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Farm Business Management Factsheet

Key points Effective decision-making is at the core of successful farm business management. Making informed, logical and timely business decisions is crucial to achieving business objectivess. Understand the different elements that influence how decisions are made and the possible outcomes. Consider who is responsible for the final decisions in the different areas of your farm business. Ensure the decision is finalised and implemented in a timely manner. Want to link to this fact sheet/publication? Full article can be found here
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Stewardship First SprayBest Guide

The application of herbicides late in the season to prevent weeds setting seed or to desiccate crops must be carried out with caution and in line with herbicide label recommendations. It is essential to check if these practices are acceptable to buyers, as in some situations markets have extremely low or even zero tolerance to some pesticide and herbicide residues.

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