Read time: 8 minutes

Single family, Coonamble NSW

Farming moisture; beating weeds.

Tony and Sharon Single farm with Tony’s parents John and Mary, south east of Coonamble in northern NSW with views of the Warrumbungle Range.

Across the 4500 ha cropping area at ‘Narratigah’, the weed numbers are low as a result of the Single’s ‘farming moisture’ philosophy, which involves planting whenever there is sufficient subsoil moisture to establish a competitive crop on their heavy clay soils. Their location allows a mix of summer and winter cropping, so if there is an opportunity for a summer crop they take it, even if that might result in missing the winter crop.

Tony (left) and John Single use their Single Shot weed detecting drone to scout for and map weeds to create a prescription map for their tractor mounted boomspray.

“Farming moisture is our risk management strategy and it has paid off time and time again,” says Tony. “We are really farming with probability and by reducing our risk we have been able to maximise profits. If there is insufficient subsoil moisture we just don’t plant. This means we have very few failed crops and we take advantage of the intermittent winter fallows to run down the seedbank, particularly for winter-active grass weeds.”

Tony says the area has a slightly summer dominant rainfall pattern but rainfall is very variable. The main crops grown are wheat, chickpea and sorghum, along with any other crop that might fit a certain planting opportunity.

While their cropping decisions are very water responsive, there can be situations where the need for ground cover outweighs other considerations. This can occur after a chickpea crop and if they feel it is necessary, Tony and John will plant a crop just to produce stubble, knowing that the yield will most likely be low.

“Generally, if it is too dry to plant we will choose to fallow to build up the soil moisture profile knowing that this is the least-risk strategy and gives the best result in the long term,” says Tony. “We can effectively gain good weed control for the full 12 months through the use of cropping and fallowing in both winter and summer.”

Resistance status

Herbicide resistance is considered the biggest threat to their business even though they currently have resistant weeds well under control. Glyphosate resistance was first confirmed at ‘Narratigah’ in 2005 in annual ryegrass, and Tony and John are also aware of some small areas of glyphosate resistant barnyard grass.

“These are our most important weeds and keeping a lid on resistance is crucial to prevent them becoming limiting factors in our cropping choices,” says Tony. “We also have other weeds including milk thistle, fleabane, blow-away grass and feathertop Rhodes grass – the full suite of northern region weeds really.”

Tony says their efforts to consistently drive down the weed seed bank, and having regular winter fallows, minimises the impact of herbicide resistance on their business.

“Our weed seed bank is low and weeds do not dictate our cropping decisions,” he says. “Ryegrass has a relatively long growing season so we have ample opportunity to stop seed set through a winter fallow. There are also several chemical options for use with our spot spraying technology and new pre-emergent herbicide options too, along with cultural controls such as chipping.”

“We are more concerned about the implications of resistant barnyard grass, which washed in from up-stream. Barnyard grass has the ability to germinate and very quickly set seed, making it more difficult to contain.”

To avert the risk of more seed being deposited by overland flow, the Singles have constructed a number of diversion banks on the up-stream side of their cropping area to divert water.

Tony is also noticing ‘rate creep’ as weeds like milk thistle that are slow to metabolise herbicide, become harder to control. He says they are needing to use a higher rate of paraquat in the double-knock applications. The Singles are managing this through regular double-knocking in fallow and strategically using saflufenacil with paraquat to enhance control.

Black oats currently has a low resistance profile due to the use of winter fallows and fop chemistry is still effective in many paddocks.

The Singles use their proprietary drone weed mapping system ‘Single Shot’ to scout for and map weeds, helping them to better plan for and implement each herbicide application.

Their integrated weed management system is an excellent example of the WeedSmart Big 6 in practice.

#1 – Diversity in cropping

The combination of winter cereals, winter pulses and summer cereals provides many opportunities for controlling weeds pre-season and in-crop.

“The decision to plant sorghum is driven by weed and disease pressure in winter crops,” says Tony. “In a paddock that is becoming difficult to manage, we would rather change to sorghum than turn to a heavy reliance on pre-emergent herbicides and in-crop spraying of winter weeds in winter crops. Swapping to a summer crop gives us the opportunity to target problematic weeds using a winter fallow phase.”

This practice, plus the persistent drought in recent years, has resulted in more fallow area and allowed them to drive down the weed seed bank of annual ryegrass and black oats. It is now very rare for them to target grass weeds in-crop in winter cereals.

Using their drone and sensor to scout for and map weeds in the fallow periods has been a powerful tool to attack the weed seed bank in both summer and winter. Decoupling the weed detection and spraying operations opens up opportunities for more diverse weed control.

Tony and John can use the drone to map the presence of weeds just before, or soon after, significant rainfall events. Once they are able to get on the paddocks with the sprayer they can target previously existing weeds with spot spraying an effective herbicide mixture while applying a blanket rate to the new germination of weeds following the rain.

Knowing exactly what is in the paddock before they start spraying means they can consider a wider range of potential chemical options or techniques. Once the plan is made, they know how much product they will need and the cost. Knowing that they will only be treating say 5 ha in a paddock, they can afford to use chemicals that they would never consider for a blanket spray application.

#2 – Mixing and rotating MOA

Tony and John use some preemergent chemistry strategically in fallows to maximise weed control diversity while keeping their options open for cropping.

They aim to use a preemergent application to control key broadleaf and grass weeds after harvest, which takes the pressure off glyphosate without compromising planting opportunities the following autumn.

A combination of soil residual herbicides such as picloram, Balance and Flame has given good results early in the summer fallow, followed with a pre-sowing double knock of glyphosate and paraquat, giving a total of five chemical groups targeting fallow weeds. When it suits the program, they use chemistry mixes such as Sharpen + paraquat in the double knock, increasing the modes of action and increasing the efficacy of the treatment on the weed spectrum.

In addition to the use of preemergent chemistry, winter grass weeds are also targeted in broadleaf crops, usually with clethodim (Group A, Group 1), but the Singles are aware of the resistance risk and are looking to introduce Clearfield canola as alternative means of grass control in break crops, and to bring more diversity to their system.

Using their drone mapping technology, Tony and John can merge multiple flights of a paddock during the year into one map to show the location of all the weeds detected. This map can then be used to apply a site-specific soil residual herbicide for the next season to say 15 to 20 per cent of the paddock. In treating smaller areas, they can afford to consider chemistry that might otherwise be too expensive, add more diversity to chemicals used and reduce their plant-back risks.

#3 – Crop competition

The Singles consider crop competition to be their #1 weed control tactic, simply because it is the only one that provides season-long in-crop weed control.

“We do everything we can to maximise the crop’s ability to suppress weeds,” says Tony. “This starts at planting, where we have invested in planting gear with moisture seeking capability so we can plant crops on time and ensure good establishment. We take great care to ensure there are no gaps for weeds to exploit, and always square-off the headlands.”

Planting at 330 mm row spacing allows for inter-row sowing and stubble retention, and planting rates are chosen to maximise yield – with long-season wheat sown at 40 to 60 plants/m2, and later plant wheat sown at 80 to 100 plants/m2. The slope of each paddock dictates the tramline direction to be perpendicular to the overland flow, which results in most paddocks being sown north south.

For all crops Tony aims to achieve 100% knockdown prior to planting with a double knock treatment, followed with a well-established, vigorous crop.

#4 – Double knock

The Singles started using the double knock tactic twenty years ago in their winter fallows, and introduced it to summer fallows about ten years ago.

“The double-knock strategy hasn’t added significantly to our overall weed control costs,” he says. “When we first started using the double-knock we counted it as a direct cost to the system, but we now see the second knock with paraquat as a preemptive strike on future weeds – an investment in lowering the weed seed bank, and we are picking up savings with lower volumes of chemical required in subsequent weed control applications.”

The double knock tactic is now embedded in their weed management strategy and they have invested in spray gear to allow them to cover their area within the recommended 7 to 8 day window. Tony says the high level of control they achieve with the double knock means there are fewer and fewer weeds each year and this reduces the cost of the operation, particularly now they have the capacity to spot spray weeds with highly consistent weed detection.

“This tactic puts a significant dent in the weed seed bank and reduces the number of large and potentially stressed plants being sprayed,” says Tony. “This makes it a very effective resistance tool, particularly for our hard to kill weeds.”

#5 – Stopping seed set

The Singles are aiming for 100 per cent weed control in fallow, particularly for annual ryegrass and BYG, by managing paddocks in a site specific way at a square metre level using their drone scouting technology.

“The drone can effectively scout for weeds at a rate of 200 ha/hr, which makes it very quick and easy to scout a paddock and then go out and chip the five or so plants that might be left growing in a paddock,” says Tony. “This moves us closer to achieving 100 percent weed control. We have really driven down our weed numbers and significantly reduced the impact of herbicide resistance in our operation.”

Occasionally, Tony will drive along the tramlines in the side-by-side and chip out any grass weeds in chickpeas that have either escaped control or germinated late in-crop. Then prior to harvest, Tony and John look for any patches of weeds that have escaped control and take action to prevent seed set.

“If we find there is a patch of weeds getting away from us we don’t hesitate to sacrifice small areas of the crop to prevent seed set,” says Tony. “In 2020 we had a three or four hectare patch of ryegrass and decided to use a small slasher to mow the crop and weeds then sprayed the area with paraquat. That way we made sure the weeds did not set seed and prevented the spread of resistant weed seed at harvest.”

The Singles do not spray any selective herbicides outside their cropped area and prior to harvest they slash a 2 m width of crop along fencelines to stop the header bringing weeds into the paddock from the fenceline.

#6 – Harvest weed seed control

Several years ago, the Singles trialed narrow windrow burning for harvest weed seed control but decided that the negative effects outweighed the weed control benefits.

“For us, ground cover is supremely important for erosion control, reducing evaporation and increasing infiltration through the heavy clay soils,” says Tony. “We are watching the developments in impact mill technology and will most likely go down that path if we feel harvest weed seed control is needed in the future.”

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