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What alternatives are there for desiccation and crop topping?

with Paul McIntosh, northern extension agronomist, WeedSmart

Swathing pulse crops is showing promise.

Desiccation and crop topping with pre-harvest herbicide application is a useful way to reduce seed set in late germinating weeds and is an effective harvest aid for cereal grain, pulse and oilseed crops. 

Given the scrutiny that glyphosate is currently receiving Paul McIntosh, WeedSmart’s northern extension agronomist, says it may be a good time to start looking for alternative means of reducing weed seed set prior to harvest and avoiding any potential issues with market access.

WeedSmart’s northern extension agronomist, Paul McIntosh has been investigating alternatives to glyphosate as a desiccant in mungbeans.

“Currently, there are five herbicides registered for late season use in a variety of crops,” he says. “Glyphosate and diquat (or Reglone) are registered for use in wheat and barley in some states, canola, chickpea, lentil, faba bean, field pea, mungbean and soybean. For some of these crops, growers are also able to use paraquat, metsulfuron methyl or saflufenacil (Sharpen).”

Although there are many benefits to the practice from a weed control perspective, there are also market forces at play that could curtail the future use of pre-harvest herbicides.   

“It might be a good time for growers to re-visit some of the non-herbicide options for reducing seed set,” says Paul. “One possibility is to trial swathing in pulse crops like chickpeas, faba beans and mungbeans. Early commercial scale trials suggest that it could be very effective and could also have the additional benefit of hastening crop maturity, bringing harvest forward.”

“In combination with harvest weed seed control, swathing is a valuable WeedSmart Big 6 tactic to manage the weed seed bank,” he says. “Swathing adds another non-herbicide tool to a diverse program, particularly for pulse crops that are often not very competitive, and for weeds that typically shed seed before the crop is ready to direct harvest.”

Are there other herbicide options for crop desiccation if the current products are banned?

In brief: Not really. In most instances, glyphosate is the most effective crop desiccant product.

The details: Glyphosate is already a key component of cropping systems, particularly in no-till systems. In crops like mungbeans that have semi-indeterminant maturity traits that make them want to keep on growing, glyphosate applied at the label rate can give mixed results.

The Australian Mungbean Association recently commissioned weeds researcher Dr Bhagirath Chauhan, QAFFI to investigate the efficacy of a range of possible alternatives to glyphosate as a desiccant, but there were no stand-out herbicide candidates. This small plot trial also included the non-herbicide option of swathing, and the results were very promising.  

Has anyone trialed swathing commercial mungbean crops?

In brief: Yes. A grower on the Darling Downs trialed swathing two mungbean crops in March and April 2020, the first being 0.4 ha within a larger paddock that was desiccated with herbicide, and the second was an 8 ha block.

The details: These two trial paddocks were very successful and the grower was encouraged by the yield and grain quality of the swathed areas. This has generated significant interest from other growers and agronomists in the northern grains region.

The crops were swathed at the standard 90 per cent physiological maturity, the same timing used for chemical desiccation in mungbeans. Harvest was delayed in the 0.4 ha block due to two falls of rain, 12 mm and then 18 mm, which meant the windrows remained in the paddock for 14 days. The crop produced 1.6 t/ha of reasonable quality grain with no evidence of dust.

Picking up the mungbean windrow after a two week delay due to wet weather.

The crop in the 8 ha block was shorter and sparser than the small trial block. Four days after this block was windrowed it was harvested with a Smale pea front at the correct moisture, suggesting that low yielding crops with reduced dry matter could be harvested earlier. The crop yielded just below 1 t/ha of excellent quality grain, with very few pods being left on the ground.

What are the potential benefits and costs of swathing?

In brief: The costs will be very similar to chemical desiccation and there could be extra benefits as the practice is fine-tuned. Swathing and windrowing costs around $35 to $40 per ha, similar to chemical desiccation, but the operation may take more time.

The details: The first benefit is the avoidance of pre-harvest chemical application, removing the potential for desiccant chemical residues in the grain. The second big benefit is that it may be possible to bring harvest forward. Even if swathing is done when the crop is 90 per cent physiologically mature, the same as for chemical desiccation, the crop can be harvested within a few days and could be off the paddock nearly two weeks earlier than a desiccated crop. The clincher is the possibility of swathing before the crop reaches 90 per cent maturity. If this can be done without compromising grain size and quality, it could have very significant benefits for weed control. Many weeds in the northern cropping region set seed before traditional desiccation and harvest time and so if the crop can be cut earlier there is a chance that less weed seed will mature.

Weed seed heads present in the mungbean windrow.

It is early days for the revival of swathing in the northern cropping region and there are many things to be tried and tested. Early successes have also been seen in sorghum, faba beans and chickpeas.

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What can I do to control large FTR grass in fallow?

Feathertop Rhodes grass (FTR) is a major weed in chemical fallows in Australia, and is notoriously hard to kill with glyphosate.
Bhagirath Chauhan, professor at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Crop Science, says some other herbicide control measures have potential to manage large FTR plants (40 to 50 leaf stage) that have escaped earlier treatment.
Professor Bhagirath Chauhan says there are some tank mixes and herbicide sequences that growers could deploy to help manage FTR and stop seed set.
“Feathertop Rhodes grass is an aggressive weed that can establish in bare fallow situations and produce a large quantitiy of seed if left uncontrolled,” he says. “Several biotypes of this species are resistant to glyphosate and can also survive a double knock of glyphosate followed by paraquat, particularly once the weed is larger than 4 to 5 leaf stage.”
To give growers more options, a study was conducted to assess the potential of other herbicides and use patterns that can control large feathertop Rhodes plants or stop seed set.   
Alternative herbicide options are available to help manage large FTR and reduce seed set in fallow.
“An integrated approach is essential to controlling feathertop Rhodes grass,” says Bhagirath. “In applying the WeedSmart Big 6 to FTR in a bare fallow situation we have identified some tank mix and herbicide sequences that growers could deploy to help manage this difficult weed and stop seed set.”
Can anything be done to improve the efficacy of glyphosate or the double knock against large FTR plants?
In brief: Adjuvants did not improve glyphosate efficacy on mature (40 to 50 leaf) FTR plants. In glyphosate resistant populations, the second knock product is doing the heavy lifting when applied to large (8 to 10 leaf) FTR plants.
The details: None of the commercially available adjuvants improved the efficacy of glyphosate (740 g a.e. per ha) as a single product application on FTR at the 40 to 50 leaf stage. All the plants survived and produced seed after being treated with glyphosate, indicating that the population used in the study was resistant to glyphosate at this rate and weed growth stage.
Glyphosate and the double knock tactic can often provide good control of resistant FTR plants if the herbicide is applied when the plants are small and actively growing.
The traditional double knock of glyphosate (Group 9 [M]) or glyphosate + 2,4-D, followed by paraquat (Group 22 [L]) or glufosinate (Group 10 [N]), applied to older FTR plants (8-10 leaf) achieved increased phytotoxicity through improved mortality, reduced biomass or fewer seed panicles.
However, the double knock was no better than using paraquat or glufosinate alone when applied to 8 to 10 leaf FTR plants. FTR is not listed on glufosinate labels in Australia but is used to control other weeds in fallow situations at the rate (750 g a.i. per ha) tested in this study. For best results, glufosinate needs to be applied in warm, humid conditions, which is not a common scenario for summer fallow situations.
Rate response (0, 187.5, 375 and 750 g a.i. per ha) to glufosinate applied to large FTR plants.
Are clethodim or haloxyfop suitable alternative herbicides to treat large, glyphosate resistant FTR plants?
In brief: Possibly. Excellent results were achieved in pot trials conducted in an open environment, but will be more difficult to achieve in the field.
The details: Clethodim and haloxyfop were tested on FTR plants at the 24 to 28 leaf stage. Clethodim is registered for use against FTR in a number of summer crops, but without any crop competition many FTR plants survived the registered rate (90 g a.i. per ha), although weed biomass and seed production was severely curtailed.
Haloxyfop efficacy against FTR at this growth stage was 100 per cent at the registered rate of 80 g a.i. per ha.
A combination of these two treatments also resulted in 100 per cent control. The effective use of these two herbicides (both Group 1 [A]) relies on excellent coverage and application when the plants are actively growing. This is difficult to achieve in field conditions, which is why the label recommendations are typically for younger weeds.
A combination of clethodim and haloxyfop can provide good control of large feathertop Rhodes plant and curtail seed production.
These herbicides are known to readily select for resistant biotypes so when applied in a chemical fallow situation (with no competition), it is necessary to target small weeds with robust application rates and to apply a second knock with a contact herbicide, such as paraquat. 
Did you find any new and exciting prospects for controlling mature FTR plants?
In brief: Yes, it seems that there is a truly synergistic effect when isoxaflutole (Group 27 [H]; e.g. Balance) is mixed with paraquat.
The details: Neither of these herbicides provided useful control of FTR at the 40 to 50 leaf stage when applied individually. When mixed together, these herbicides achieved a higher level of weed mortality and prevented panicle production. For example, a tank mixture of isoxaflutole 75 g a.i. per ha, with paraquat 600 g a.i. per ha, resulted in 92 per cent FTR mortality and no panicle production.
Even at a paraquat rate of 300 g a.i. per ha mixed with isoxaflutole 75 g a.i. per ha, only 17 per cent of the large FTR plants survived when the mixture was applied to both the plant and the nearby soil – allowing uptake through both the leaves and the roots.
The benefit of this mixture may be reduced if the weed patch is dense, potentially reducing the amount of the isoxaflutole that reaches the soil. Even the prevention of seed set in large FTR plants is of significant value in managing the seed bank of this invasive weed, as FTR seed remains viable for less than 12 months.
Such a use pattern is not currently specified on product labels, although both products are registered for weed control in fallow situations.  
Web resources
Read the research paper.

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Can pulse cover crops tackle multi-resistant ryegrass in irrigated systems?

The best weed control comes from tactics that also bring other benefits to a farming system.
Greg Sefton, principal agronomist with Sefton Agronomics in the Riverina, says multi-resistant annual ryegrass is becoming a major problem in irrigated systems.
Greg Sefton, principal agronomist with Sefton Agronomics in the Riverina, says legume cover cropping is providing effective control of multi-resistant annual ryegrass in irrigated systems.
“Herbicide resistance can move easily through irrigation areas, particularly when the control methods used on the supply channels are limited to just a few herbicides,” he says. “The ryegrass here is generally accepted to have resistance to glyphosate (Group 9 [M]), Group 1 [A] such as clethodim, Group 2 [B] and Group 3 [D], such as trifluralin. Growers are now relying heavily on Group 15 [K] products such as Sakura, and doing their best to rotate out of the problem.”
To regain control, Greg is working with growers to incorporate a multi-purpose fallow crop such as field pea into the system as a winter fallow clean with the added benefit of contributing biological nitrogen into the soil ahead of planting rice or wheat. 
Earlier maturing varieties of field pea provide better weed control options than Kaspa field pea, chickpea and lupin, all of which generally mature later, sometimes after the target weeds have set seed.
“A competitive pulse crop terminated at maximum biomass is an excellent way to reduce weed seed set,” says Greg. “It is a cultural control that also enables the use of some herbicides that are rarely used in our system. Combining the herbicide and cultural methods in the WeedSmart Big 6 is an effective way to keep our cropping options open and to maximise the value of applied water.”

What is the best fit for the legume crop as a winter clean?
In brief: In the Riverina, the optimal place in the rotation is ahead of rice.
The details: Fields selected for rice production are usually bare fallowed for the preceding winter. The aim of the fallow is to control weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Some growers are having success with field pea sown in May as a winter cover crop then terminated for silage or as a brown manure in early September. This fits well with preventing seed set in annual ryegrass, including late germinating plants.
Field pea is a competitive legume and can suppress weed germination and growth when planted in the most competitive configuration possible with minimal soil disturbance and no gaps.
A knockdown treatment of glyphosate (Group 9 [M]), clopyralid (Group 4 [I]) and carfentrazone (Group G [14]) is applied at planting then a mix of pendimethalin (Group 3 [D]), clomazone (Group 13 [Q]) and paraquat (Group 22 [L]) is applied after an irrigation flush to initiate rice germination and prior to rice germination to knockdown both newly emerged barnyard grass (BYG) and persisting ryegrass. This provides a double knock on ryegrass whilst applying a pre-emergent herbicide for barnyard grass in the rice phase.
When implemented once every 4 or 5 years, with a diverse rotation of winter and summer crops in-between, growers can keep a lid on herbicide resistant annual ryegrass populations. 
Field pea is a competitive legume crop that can reduce annual ryegrass germination in the paddock and halt encroachment from the crop borders.
How do you manage weeds on the non-crop areas?
In brief: The same herbicide mix is applied to the whole paddock, including the weeds growing in the check banks.
The details: Weed seed, often carrying herbicide resistance genes, travels easily through irrigation systems and can colonise non-crop areas. Seed from these plants readily infests the cropping areas if not controlled effectively. The control measures used on non-crop zones are often limited to herbicide tactics, so it is important to make sure the herbicide is applied to maximum effect to prevent seed set.
Farm hygiene and physical removal of isolated weeds will also have a positive impact on weed seed production. 
What farming system benefits come with growing a legume cover crop?
In brief: A legume crop grown for biomass rather than grain can improved soil tilth and reduce crusting on some sodic soils. This practice also allows better soil nutrition management and keeps the grower’s options open if the water allocation situation changes.
The details: The field pea crop will fix atmospheric nitrogen and this allows the grower to use 100 to 150 kg/ha less urea to grow the following rice crop without any yield penalty. If there is insufficient irrigation water available for a rice crop, then the fixed nitrogen is still available for a winter crop of canola or wheat.
The phosphorus fertiliser required for rice can be applied when the field pea crop is planted, giving the phosphorus time to become more available in the soil and ready for uptake when the rice is planted.
Field pea is quite drought tolerant, so if irrigation water is not available for rice, the field pea can be grown through to harvest the grain and will usually yield 0.7 t/ha, which can be more profitable than, say, a 1 t/ha drought-affected wheat crop.
Building an integrated farming system based on methods that have multiple benefits is fundamental to staying ahead of weed pressure.
Practical tips for growing field peas as a brown manure crop
Pulses to attack weeds on many fronts

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Can multi-species planting provide effective weed control?

Crop competition is one of the most effective weed control tools available to growers, but some crops simply don’t have a competitive edge.
Dr Andrew Fletcher, a farming systems scientist with CSIRO, says companion planting and intercropping is an option that growers can consider to bolster the competitiveness of an otherwise uncompetitive but valuable crop in the rotation. International research suggests that it can!
Andrew Fletcher, CSIRO farming systems researcher sees potential for multi-species plantings to compete with weeds. Photo: GRDC
“When two or more species are grown together they can occupy ecological niches that might otherwise be taken up by weeds,” he says. “Multi-species plantings have several potential benefits including increased crop yield and improved soil health, but the right combination can also reduce weed biomass by over 50 per cent.”
Multi-species plantings can be quite challenging to integrate into a grain cropping rotation but are more easily used in mixed grain and livestock operations and in intensive pastures for dairy cattle. International research suggests there is a significant untapped opportunity to increase the use of these systems in Australian grain production systems. However, relevant Australian data is scarce and more research is required to understand this untapped potential in Australian systems.    
A mixed-species cover crop can provide multiple soil health benefits, grazing and fodder for livestock and weed control through crop competition and stopping weed seed set.
“Crop competition is a non-herbicide pillar in the WeedSmart Big 6, with the potential to do some serious heavy lifting in terms of weed control,” says Andrew. “Intercropping and companion planting offers a means to bolster the competitiveness of some crops and to keep them in the rotation without risking a weed blow-out.”
What is intercropping, companion planting and mixed-species planting?
In brief: These systems all involve planting two or more crop species together. The combinations are almost limitless.
The details: Intercropping involves planting two or more species together and harvesting the grain of multiple crops. This generally relies on the grain species having different size seed and compatible harvest times.
Companion planting involves two or more species planted together with the intention to harvest grain from one species only after grazing or terminating the other species before seed set.
Sowing a low-growing species like clover between the rows of cereal can compete with weeds in the inter-row area, fix nitrogen and provide the basis of a pasture after the cereal grain is harvested. This is one example of companion planting.
Mixed-species planting is used to describe plantings of several species grown together primarily for the soil health benefits, and that may have potential for grazing and or forage conservation.
How do these systems suppress weed growth?
In brief: These multi-species systems are designed to take up the ecological space that might otherwise present and opportunity for weeds to fill.
The details: Intercropping and companion planting provide additional weed control in situations where one of the species is a relatively poor competitor as a sole crop. By maximising competition, weed growth is suppressed by up to 58 per cent compared to the least competitive species grown on its own. If a competitive crop such as barley is sown in the most competitive configuration possible, there is little additional benefit from adding a second species.
The downside of using this multi-species strategy for weed control is that in-crop herbicide options the choice of herbicides is limited. This is mainly due to the common combinations being a grass crop with a legume or brassica, meaning grass and broadleaf herbicide options can’t be used, except for when one species is terminated. This needs to be factored into decisions around intercropping and companion cropping.  
What are the best-bet combinations for enhanced weed control?
In brief: It depends on the farming system and the other reasons for considering a multi-species planting.
The details: If the aim is to produce grain, the species selected should have easily separated seed. A well-known example is peaola (field pea plus canola). A recent review of historical trials showed that the median yield increase was 31 per cent compared to sole crops of peas and canola, but the weed control effects of peaola in Australia are unquantified.
An effective companion planting combination is wheat undersown with tillage radish and a legume. The broadleaf companions are sprayed out at stem elongation, leaving the cereal to mature through to harvest.
If there is livestock in the farming system, dual purpose combinations such as grazing canola plus vetch and oats can provide excellent weed suppression. This mix could be grazed and then terminated as hay or silage at stem elongation.
Multi-species plantings add a layer of complexity to the farming system, but many growers have taken on the challenge and are reaping the rewards in crop yield, soil health and weed suppression.

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