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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.
What can I do at harvest to reduce my future weed burden?
As crops mature and harvesters begin reaping, consider the potential fate of seeds ripening on weeds that escaped in-crop control measures.
Peter Newman, WeedSmart’s western extension agronomist, says harvest time is an important opportunity to assess weed burden across the farm and be proactive about driving down the weed seed bank.
“Harvest can either be a super-spreader or a weed suppressing event,” he says. “Small patches of weeds can quickly expand when seed is blown out the back of the harvester. On the other hand, the harvester can be a powerful weed management tool if any one of the harvest weed seed control options are implemented.”
WeedSmart’s western extension agronomist, Peter Newman says efforts made to reduce the spread of weed seed at harvest will soon pay off for growers.
Australian growers have led the world in inventing and adopting harvest weed seed control tools such as impact mills, chaff carts, chaff decks and chaff lining, all of which can reliably destroy over 90 per cent of the weed seed that enters the front of the harvester.
“In addition to harvest weed seed control there are several other actions in the WeedSmart Big 6 that growers can implement just prior to, during and immediately after harvest that will make a measurable difference to the weed burden in future growing seasons,” says Peter. “The WeedSmart Big 6 tactics are scientifically-proven to reduce the risk of herbicide resistance through diverse herbicide use and cultural control to prevent weed seed set.”
What can I do before harvest to manage late emerged weeds?
In brief: Scout for and map weedy patches. Consider sacrificing small areas of high density weeds. Swathing can be a very effective way to stop seed set of late emerged or resistant weeds. Collect weed seeds for herbicide susceptibility testing.
The details: Growers across Australia use a variety of methods to map weeds – from the simple to the sublime. ‘Dropping a pin’ using the tractor’s GPS mapping system as you travel through a weedy section when spraying or harvesting is easy and provides useful information about the distribution of weeds in the paddock. Many growers have their own drones and use them the collect images or video footage of the crop that can be viewed or analysed to identify high density weed patches.
Collect seed for herbicide susceptibility testing – knowing what still works is vital information for planning next season’s herbicide program. There are three herbicide testing facilities in Australia that are equipped to test weed seed samples – Plant Science Consulting, CSU Herbicide Resistance Testing and UWA Herbicide Resistance Testing.
Collecting weed 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.
Keep samples from different locations separate and details noted on the bag. Only use paper bags (double layer) to collect and send seed samples. Ensure bags are sealed so that the samples don’t mix during transit.
Which harvest weed seed control tool is best for my situation?
In brief: There are six harvest weed seed control tools used in Australia – impact mills, chaff decks, chaff lining, chaff carts, bale direct and narrow windrow burning. Choose the one that best suits your system and budget.
The details: Impact mills are best suited to continuous cropping situations. Residues are retained and evenly spread. Chaff decks have lower capital cost and are well-suited to controlled traffic situations. Chaff carts are popular with grain producers who also run livestock. Bale direct is also expensive but has a good fit in locations where there is access to straw markets. Chaff lining is currently the best ‘entry level’ system and can be used in CTF or non-CTF systems, with best results where the harvester runs on the same track each year. Chaff lining has essentially superseded narrow windrow burning, overcoming the time required and risks involved in burning and reducing the loss of nutrients from the system.
If you haven’t used harvest weed seed control tools before, it doesn’t take long to build and fit a chaff lining chute ready for use this harvest season.
What should I be ready to do straight after harvest?
In brief: Spraying weeds immediately after harvest is fairly common practice. Weeds present may be close to maturity or fresh germinations of summer-active weed species.
The details: Some growers get in early with knockdown herbicide applied under the cutter bar when swathing barley or canola. Consider using the double knock strategy, heavy grazing pressure and possibly a soil residual herbicide that is compatible with your planned crop rotation. Pay particular attention to any weedy patches identified before or during harvest. Stopping seed set at every opportunity is the crux of an effective weed management program.
Give some thought to what might be the underlying cause of weedy patches – fixing problems such as pH and soil nutrition imbalances, waterlogging and spray practices that routinely deliver low doses of herbicide.
What’s the benefit of a double paraquat knockdown?
The ‘double knock’ strategy has long been used and promoted as a valuable tool in the battle against glyphosate resistance in weeds, with paraquat typically applied to control weeds that survived the ‘first knock’ of glyphosate.
James Jess, research and technical services manager, Western AG in Ballarat, says growers in his client group and beyond have used a double paraquat application to great effect this year, and avoided a very serious blow-out of glyphosate resistant annual ryegrass.
James Jess, research and technical services manager, Western AG in Ballarat. (Source: Syngenta)
“The 2020 season did not provide an opportunity for an effective pre-seeding knockdown and growers across the higher rainfall zones of Victoria found many large, well-tillered ryegrass plants flourishing in their crops,” he says. “We sent samples to Peter Boutsalis at Plant Science Consulting and the results of the Quick Test showed high levels of glyphosate resistance.”
The live plant samples sent to Plant Science Consulting were tested for their response to rates from 2 to 5 L/ha of 600 g active ingredient glyphosate, and many survived rates of 4 L/ha and above. Given the high level of resistance, Western AG put down a trial to compare a range of double knock options so they could give their clients more confidence going into the 2021 season.
“We knew that the surviving plants growing in fields across the district would be setting a huge amount of seed and that growers would face a devastating situation unless we took decisive and effective action in 2021,” says James. “In the badly infested patches growers also took measures to reduce the amount of seed entering the seed bank at the end of the 2020 season using hay cutting or harvest weed seed control. In paddocks with mainly glyphosate susceptible ryegrass, desiccating feed barley is also a good way to drive down weed numbers.”
‘Double-knock to protect glyphosate’ is one of the WeedSmart Big 6 tactics, which will be the centre of discussion at WeedSmart Week in Esperance, WA in August this year. This flagship event always attracts growers from interstate keen to see how other farmers are keeping weed numbers low in different systems. Early bird registration is now open.
What double-knock options did you trial?
In brief: 1. Glyphosate followed by paraquat and 2. two sequential paraquat applications.
The details: A series of timings were also tested for both the double knock options. Each of the ‘second knocks’ were applied 3, 7 and 12 days after the first knock application.
The two paraquat applications either 3 or 7 days apart were clearly effective in the trial, with the first paraquat application providing 90 per cent control of the glyphosate resistant ryegrass. This means that in a year where it is not possible to implement a double knock, we know that a single application of paraquat at robust rates will still do a good job of reducing weed numbers.
Get more details from the Western AG trial site report.
What advice did you give your clients going in to the 2021 season?
In brief: Delay seeding and implement a double paraquat knockdown.
The details: It was essential to get on top of the glyphosate resistance in ryegrass and avoid a blow-out. Last season the resistance level was high but the plants were still mainly found in manageable patches. Given the amount of seed that was likely added to the seed bank and potentially spread during harvest, it was essential that extra emphasis was put on having a clean seedbed going in to the 2021 season.
Once an effective knockdown has been applied we then recommend growers use a pre-emergent herbicide to reduce weed emergence when the crop is young. Later germinations are then suppressed by the competitive crop. In our trial we used Sakura incorporated by sowing (IBS), which provided excellent early weed control.
Has the recommendation been adopted successfully?
In brief: Yes, rapid and widespread adoption.
The details: There was immediate adoption of this tactic in response to the situation that emerged last season in the high rainfall zone of Victoria. Over 70 per cent of the Western AG client base in the higher rainfall western districts of Victoria implemented a double-paraquat application pre-seeding to target glyphosate resistant ryegrass before seeding the 2021 winter crop. This high level of adoption was a result of the strategy being actively promoted to clients, with the trial results giving growers the confidence to implement the recommendation.
The Western AG double knock trial last year provided growers with the confidence they needed to take decisive action on glyphosate resistant ryegrass before seeding the 2021 crop.
The blow-out was a real eye-opener for growers about how important it is to keep weed numbers low and the resistance mechanisms in play for all agricultural chemicals – not just herbicides.
The double paraquat tactic is also a good knockdown prior to sowing Roundup Ready canola to meet the stewardship requirements for using the RR technology.
Although resistance to paraquat is currently quite rare in annual ryegrass, it has been found in situations where paraquat has been applied at sub-lethal rates over a long period of time. There have also been new cases of paraquat resistance confirmed, and identified as developing, in ryegrass populations in WA, SA, Victoria and NSW this year.
With this in mind, a simple switch to double paraquat as a pre-seeding knockdown is not recommended as a standard practice but rather as a strategic tactic to contain glyphosate resistance in ryegrass. Once that has been achieved, a set of diverse strategies, including herbicide mixes, must be implemented and any survivors must be removed before they set seed.
Western AG Double knock field demo results – 2020
Double paraquat and RR canola – Podcast with Mark Lawrence