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Is one-time tillage a weed control option in a no-till farming system?

with Yash Dang, Senior Research Fellow, University of Queensland

Many would say that the widespread adoption of no-till and minimum till farming underpinned the expansion of cropping in the northern region and saved many farming families from economic hardship.

While costs and erosion damage were reduced, the heavy reliance on herbicides has resulted in a significant shift toward weeds that can thrive in this farming system. Weeds that were previously not considered a problem are now making farming unprofitable or impossible on some no-till paddocks.

Dr Yash Dang, University of Queensland research fellow, says ‘no-till’ does not have to mean ‘never till’. Occasional cultivation can be used as a weed control tactic without having a detrimental effect on the soil resource.

University of Queensland senior research fellow, Dr Yash Dang says the removal of cultivation has also led to an accumulation of certain immobile nutrients such as phosphorus, zinc and potassium in the dry surface layer of the soil where plant roots can not access them.

“Cultivation has a role in distributing nutrients, managing soil and stubble borne diseases and controlling certain weeds,” he says. “The complete removal of tillage for 15 to 20 years or more on some farms has led some farmers to the conclusion that they can not continue as no-till farmers.”

Yash undertook a 4-year project, starting in 2012, to investigate the effect of tillage on a range of soil properties in no-till paddocks throughout the northern cropping region – from Emerald, Qld to Dubbo, NSW.

“We applied tillage using disc and tyne implements and also tested the timing and frequency of tillage operations,” says Yash. “On well-structured soils there was no detrimental effect as a result of the cultivation. Even on more difficult soils, such as those with sodic subsoil or with hardsetting tendencies, one-off tillage operation at the correct soil moisture content caused only limited damage to the soil and repair was evident within two or three years.”

The research also demonstrated that cultivation is a viable weed control tactic within an otherwise no-till system, to prevent seed set of weeds such as fleabane and feathertop Rhodes grass, which flourish in a chemical-dominant control program.

“The positive effect on weed numbers is usually short-lived and has the potential to have negative effects in the years after cultivation,” says Yash. “Growers considering the re-introduction of occasional cultivation must consider all the pros and cons. Cultivation is just another tool in an integrated weed management system – not a stand-alone solution.”

How often should I use cultivation in my no-till system?

Short answer: As a last resort.

Longer answer: A move to no-till farming has provided significant benefits to the soil resource and to farmer’s profitability. This research does not suggest a return to full cultivation, however, the trials showed that one-off, occasional tillage does not have significant detrimental effects on the soil. Care is required in terms of timing, type and frequency of tillage on sodic soils and soils with hardsetting characteristics.

There is a soil moisture loss associated with cultivation so this should be taken into account when making the decision to cultivate.

The type of implement used for a one-off cultivation had little impact on the soil properties. Non-inversion tine or disc implements provided effective weed control when used before weeds flowered and set seed.

When should I use tillage?

Short answer: Before the weeds flower and set seed.

Longer answer: Cultivation should be a last resort measure to treat patches or paddocks where the weed pressure has reached unacceptable levels and where the species present do not have seed that remains viable for many years once buried.

Weeds such as fleabane and feathertop Rhodes grass are good candidates for occasional tillage as a means of preventing seed set. Numbers of these species can be driven down quickly through a dedication to preventing seed set for just a few consecutive years.

In most situations a single pass cultivation is sufficient to achieve the desired effect of reducing the target weed population. If the problem is severe then this single pass operation may be required for a few consecutive years. Timing is critical to achieve good weed control while not sacrificing a planting opportunity.

What other benefits can I expect from occasional tillage?

Short answer: A possible yield increase.

Longer answer: Cultivation will speed up mineralisation in the soil and the breakdown of organic matter. The distribution of immobile nutrients, such as phosphorus, potassium and zinc, deeper into the plant root zone. In a no-till system these nutrients tend to accumulate in the top few centimetres of soil, which is often too dry for plant roots to access. The release of nutrients may support short-term yield response.

Cultivation will also disrupt insect and disease cycles, potentially improving yield and reducing control costs. Pathogens causing diseases such as crown rot of wheat, yellow spot of wheat, ascochyta blight of chickpea and stalk rot of sorghum, can build up in the stubble and soil in a no-till farming system. Likewise soil insects such as Helicoverpa, armyworms and black field earwigs can proliferate in the surface soil.

The type of implement used for a one-off cultivation had little impact on the soil properties. Non-inversion tine or disc implements provided effective weed control when used before weeds flowered and set seed. Photo: L Wise

What are the risks associated with occasional tillage?

Short answer: Potential nutrient and soil moisture loss, and exposure to erosion.

Longer answer: Tillage is accompanied with a loss of soil moisture, however, at most of the trial sites stored moisture improved in subsequent years due to improved infiltration. If possible, cultivation should be done when there is a good chance of sufficient rainfall before the next planting opportunity. Mineralised nutrients and the soil itself is more exposed to runoff following cultivation.

In situations where weed seed has been buried previously, cultivation may bring these seeds back to the surface and initiate fresh germinations. Paddock history is an important consideration in the decision to cultivate.

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How can I be certain that herbicide residues in the soil have fully degraded at planting?

In the course of a chemical fallow there are often several applications of herbicide and some residues may still be present on or near the soil surface when it is time to plant the next crop. In particularly dry years, residues may even carryover from the crop prior to the fallow. NSW Department of Primary Industries soil scientist, Dr Mick Rose, says there has been concern in recent years about the effect these residues may have on soil microbial activity and on the establishment and growth of crops following the fallow, even after the plant back period. Dr Mick Rose, DPI NSW soils researcher, is developing tests and predictive models to support growers in their decisions about crop choice after using residual herbicides. (Photo: GRDC). “Glyphosate has been the most commonly used knockdown herbicide in northern fallows for several decades and more recently growers have been looking to use more diverse programs that include chemicals with residual activity on weeds,” he says. “The increased use of imazapic and diuron have been of most concern to growers when choosing the next crop, particularly after a low rainfall fallow period.” With investment from GRDC, Mick has been working on a project led by Dr Michael Widderick from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland to develop a soil test for imazapic and diuron residues that will indicate damaging residue levels and help growers to decide which crops would be safe to plant in a paddock. “We are determining the threshold levels of residues of these two herbicides at which crop damage is likely for six crops, both winter and summer growing, in a range of soil types,” he says. In earlier work he also looked at the level of glyphosate residue in soils around the country at planting time and the impact these residues have on soil biological processes. “We found that residues of glyphosate were commonly detected in the soil at planting but there was no indication that the herbicide was adversely affecting soil biological activity,” says Mick. “This suggests that the label recommendations are suitable and the proper application of glyphosate in Australia is not posing a threat to soil health.” “For growers to be able to keep using glyphosate they need to implement the WeedSmart Big 6 strategy, including using diverse chemistry in fallows,” he says. “Residual herbicides are a useful tool for growers but there are some gaps in our knowledge about how these herbicides break down in different soils and under different seasonal conditions.” Why not just follow the plant back recommendations on the label? In brief: The label provides the minimum plant back period provided certain environmental conditions are met. There is a possibility of crop injury even though plant back periods are observed. The details: Many factors affect the bioavailability of a herbicide in the soil. For example, even though a clay soil and a sandy soil might have similar residue levels, more herbicide will be available for uptake in the sandy soil. More rain will increase the rate of breakdown, but it is not known exactly how much rain will ensure the specific soil is ‘safe’ to plant into. Another important factor is that many things can contribute to a germination failure. In some situations, residual herbicide may be suspected as the culprit, but can be difficult to either rule it in or out with certainty when diagnosing the reason for a problem at planting. If herbicide residues in the plant tissue can be shown to be phytotoxic, then another, less susceptible crop could be sown into the paddock. Dr Annie Ruttledge, DAF Qld weeds researcher, inspecting chickpea plants growing in soils containing different levels of imazapic and diuron herbicide residue. What effects can herbicide residues have on emerging crops? In brief: The herbicide itself can inhibit germination and growth, or it can exacerbate other factors, such as root disease. The details: At different levels of bioavailability, herbicide residues will have different effects on crop plants. If the herbicide is readily available to the plant, then susceptible crops will take it up from the soil and it can have phytotoxic effects ranging from suppressed vigour to yellowing and potentially plant death. Testing the plant tissue of a struggling crop can show if the leaves contain sufficient herbicide to have caused the observed symptoms. Some herbicide residues in soil can also ‘prune’ plant roots, particularly the fine roots that help access moisture and nutrients. Obviously, if the young plants are struggling to access resources then they will be less vigorous and possibly die. Damaged roots are also more susceptible to water stress, disease and poor nodulation in legumes, making it difficult to determine the initial cause of the problem in the field. If herbicide residues are shown to be the problem then a more tolerant crop can be sown, speeding up the breakdown of the residue and there will be more rainfall events before the next cropping season comes around. Seedling emergence and establishment is being measured for six crops (winter and summer) in the presence of different levels of herbicide. What pre-planting soil tests are being developed to give growers confidence to plant? In brief: The current project is establishing phytotoxicity thresholds for six summer and winter crops in a range of soil types, for two herbicides – imazapic and diuron. The details: By mid-2021 the aim is to have established the thresholds so that soil could be tested pre-plant to determine what crops would be safe to plant. This will give growers confidence to use these herbicides in a diverse strategy to manage weeds like feathertop Rhodes grass in the fallow, while avoiding germination or establishment failures in the following crop. Spray records play an important role in the management of these herbicides and mistakes can easily be made if the spray history for the past several years is not taken into account. In time, growers and their agronomists will gain a better understanding of how these herbicide residues behave in the soils on a particular property and will be able to make herbicide application and crop rotation decisions with more confidence. In another project with the Soil CRC, Mick is developing a predictive model for herbicide breakdown for a wider range of herbicides used in southern and western cropping systems. Until these tests and models become available, the use of an in-field or pot bioassay with a susceptible crop can be helpful in determining potential plant back issues.   Related resources Herbicide residues in soil – the scale and significance (GRDC Update paper) Herbicide residues in soil (GRDC Podcast)
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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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