USDA Research Shows That Soil Erosion is Higher in Organic Systems

Time to replace the plow?

Cultivation: ARS-Beltsville

In 1996, The Farming Systems Project was established at the USDA ARS Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland to compare the performance of conventional and organic production systems. In the conventional systems, herbicides are used to kill weeds while in the organic systems, up to seven tillage operations are used to kill weeds. Tillage equipment loosens the soil and leaves it bare and susceptible to erosion when it rains. The USDA researchers estimated that the organic plots lost five times more eroded soil than the plots that were not tilled and where herbicides were used. A point made in a recent highlight article…..

“Tillage is used to bury the previous year’s crop residue and destroy weeds. But in no-till farming, herbicide removes the weeds and the new seed is sown directly into the stubble of the last crop.

No-till systems also win hands-down when it comes to hanging on to soils. An 11-year farming experiment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, compared crops grown in three ways: conventional tillage, organic methods, or no-till. Compared to the conventionally tilled plot, the organic plot was likely to hang on to 30 percent more soil. But compared to the organic plot, the no-till plot hung on to 80 percent more soil.

David Pimentel is a Cornell University entomologist who has written much about the negative environmental impacts of pesticides. Nevertheless, “I’d take chemicals over soil erosion any day,” he says.”

Author: Finkel, E.
Affiliation: Writer
Title: Is It Time to Replace the Plow?
Source: Conservation Magazine. 2008. 9[3]:32-33.

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To weed or not to weed: Shakespeare as Ag Communicator

Shakespeare

Shakespeare

An Ag Communication specialist recently read through the Bard’s plays and found several quotes about the importance of controlling weeds.

“I suppose Shakespeare wasn’t an agronomist in the proper sense so much as he had an acute, affectionate love of nature along with the transcendent genius to contemplate and express his sublime sentiments. It wasn’t that he surveyed or discovered things in the world that no one else could see externally, but everywhere in nature he found metaphors for the human condition.

The Bard was so comprehensive and universally appealing that multitudes of professions have “claimed” him as their own practitioner: Why can’t we agricultural communicators claim him as our own as well?

Without further ado, here are just a few quotes I plucked out of the Bard’s works pertaining in some manner to the foulness of weeds or other pests.

Gardener:
I would go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

Servant:
The whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin’d
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?
Richard II, act iii, sc. 4

I think the above clearly shows that Shakespeare would’ve concurred with our contention that one must control weeds if one wants to preserve moisture and nutrients for one’s crops.

Hamlet:
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fye on it, ah fye! ‘tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
Hamlet, act I, sc. 2

Fye on you weeds! Thou art rank and gross! My fellow ag communicators have been proclaiming this for years… just like Hamlet.

Friar:
I must up-fill this willow cage of ours0
With baleful weeds and precious juiced flowers.
Romeo and Juliet, act ii, sc. 3
 
“Baleful weeds”…now that’s ominous.

Queen:
Now ‘tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden,
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry.
2nd Henry VI, act iii, sc. 1

Bravo! Spray weeds early and often!”

Author: Loftis, D.
Affiliation: McCormick Co.
Title: To weed or not to weed
Source: Agri Marketing. November/December 2009. Pgs.54-55.

Using Herbicides to Reduce the Risk of Forest Fires

Wildfires

Wildfire Burning on Forest Floor

Sprays

Spraying Weeds on Forest Floor

Forest floors can be covered with many weeds that dry out and become a source of fuel
for forest fires. Many weed species dry quickly during drought creating hazardous “flashy” fuels in wildfire situations.  Studies have shown a significant reduction in fire intensity in areas where herbicides are applied to remove weeds. Incorporating herbicides into land management plans helps to decrease fuel loads and reduce the risk of forest fires.

“Exotic annual grasses such as cheatgrass, medusahead, and Ventenata can produce large amounts of fine fuel loads creating favorable conditions for wild fires… Herbicides imazapic and propoxicarbazone sodium have been particularly effective in controlling or suppressing exotic annual grasses, depending on rates and time of application. The main limitation for extensive use of these herbicides, particularly in rangelands, is the cost. However, if the fuel load from exotic annual grasses is reduced, the risk of wild fires will also decrease as a result of the herbicide applications. This could help create lower fire risk sections or corridors in order to protect more sensitive areas such as installations, roadsides, buildings, animal shelters, etc. The cost of herbicide applications for these areas would be compensated by the value of the saved resources and reduction in the cost of controlling frequent wild fires. The use of herbicides would only be justified if a significant reduction of the fuel load is achieved. The objective of this study was to quantify the impact of herbicides and application timings on invasive annual grass fuel load production.

…Although every treatment had an impact on the produced litter, the most significant biomass reduction, 53 percent, was observed with the application of Plateau®.

These preliminary results suggest that herbicides have the potential be used to reduce fuel loads from annual weedy grasses, particularly in recently burned fields.”

Authors: Sbatella, G., and Twelker, S.
Affiliations: Oregon State University
Title: Impact of herbicide applications for exotic annual grass control on fuel load production.
Source: Rangeland Research Reports, available at: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/coarc/sites/default/files/impact_of_herbicide_applications_for_exotic_annual_grass_control_on_fuel_load_production.pdf

Organic Growers Can Use Synthetic Herbicides When Planting a New Vineyard

Weedy Vineyard

Weedy Vineyard

Planting a new vineyard in a weedy field is a bad idea. Weeds would compete with the small vines for moisture, space, nutrients and light which would set back their growth. Thus, in establishing a new vineyard, growers need to clear the weeds out. Most growers use synthetic chemical herbicides when planting a new vineyard due to the high cost of hand weeding and negative effects of tillage. Using herbicides is an option for organic growers since the small vines do not produce grapes for several years which corresponds to the waiting time to be certified as organic.

“…weed management is the most expensive and technically challenging practice for organic grape production, and many organic farmers rely on mechanical and hand cultivation for weed control. Although these methods are highly effective, they are also labor intensive, more expensive, and their sustainability is questionable from a labor and environmental perspective.

Another option would be to use conventional production techniques that use synthetic herbicides during the establishment phase, and once established, transition the vineyard to achieve organic certification.”

Authors: Olmstead, M., et al.
Affiliations: Department of Horticultural Sciences, University of Florida.
Title: Weed control in a newly established organic vineyard.
Source: Hort Technology. December 2012. 22(6):757-765.

To Increase Income and Competiveness, Public Policy Should Educate African Maize Farmers About the Benefits of Using Herbicides

Weedy Maize Field: Africa

Weedy Maize Field: Africa

Maize consumption is a major source of calories for millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Within the next few decades, the majority of people in Sub-Saharan Africa will be living in cities. Countries in eastern and southern Africa are increasing imports of staple foods, including maize. In order to be competitive, African farmers need to reduce the cost of producing a unit of maize. Herbicide adoption would greatly reduce costs of growing maize and lead to greater yields and farmer income and competiveness.

“Rural smallholder production remains highly labor-intensive. On average, family labor accounts for 62% of the total cost of maize production in Zambia’s small- and medium-scale farm sector. Promoting the identification and adoption of practices and technologies that save labor and/or identifying labor-productivity-enhancing technologies through research and development will therefore help to make Zambian maize more competitive and allow farmers to maintain profitability even at lower producer prices.

Although only 3% of fields had herbicides applied, regression results suggest the benefits of its use are quite high. All else equal, applying herbicides increases gross margin between ZMK 363,700 to ZMK 376,300 per hectare planted… The magnitude of this effect is fairly large compared to the national average margin of ZMK 1,108,542 (in other words, at the mean, herbicide use would increase gross margins by roughly a third). …these results indicate that public policy measure should be considered to educate farmers about the benefits of herbicide application, as its contribution to smallholder income growth and regional competitiveness may be comparable to and highly synergistic with increased fertilizer use.”

Authors: Burke, W. J., et al.
Affiliation: Zambia Food Security Research Project (FSRP)
Title: The cost of maize production by smallholder farmers in Zambia
Source: Food Security Research Project. Working Paper 50. March 2011. Available at: http://www.aec.msu.edu/agecon/fs2/zambia/index.htm 

Herbicide Use on Cotton Farms Could Greatly Increase Income of Farm Families in Africa

African Cotton Herbicide Experiment

African Cotton Herbicide Experiment

The income of family farms growing cotton in Africa is low largely due to the small size of farms- about one hectare. A major reason that farm size is small is because fields are weeded by hand and there usually is not enough family labor to weed more than one hectare. With use of herbicides, the need for labor is reduced dramatically and individual cotton farms would be able to significantly increase their acreage and incomes.

“Under rainfed agricultural production, common throughout most of Africa, labor bottlenecks at planting and weeding times often critically constrain farm output. During the four to six week period following the first rains, farmers must prepare their soil, plant and conduct the critical first weeding.

Under these circumstances, early season labor constraints, particularly during the first weeding, set an upper bound on the cropped area a family can manage using only household labor. For the average farm household in central Zambia, with five family members, peak-season labor bottlenecks limit the area they can cultivate under conventional hand hoe tillage to about 1 hectare.

In Zambia, herbicide application, instead of weeding with a hand hoe, cuts peak season labor requirements in half.

When combined with dry season land preparation, this reduction in peak season labor requirements enables farm households to crop 2.7 hectares of land under hand hoe cultivation using only household labor. As a result, hand hoe farmers can increase their income from these three crops to 2.9 million Kwacha ($620) per year, triple what they can earn under conventional hand hoe agriculture…

This suggests that cotton company inclusion and financing of one round of herbicides in their cotton packs could potentially raise cotton production and household income considerably.”

Authors: Steven Haggblade and Christina Plerhoples
Affiliations: Department of Agricultural Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University
Title: Productivity impact of conservation farming on smallholder cotton farmers in Zambia
Source: Food Security Research Project. Working Paper 47. July 2010. Available at: http://www.aec.msu.edu/agecon/fs2/zambia/index.htm 

California Alfalfa Production Would be One Million Tons Lower with Conversion to Organic Practices

Alfalfa Weevil on Damaged Leaf

Alfalfa Weevil on Damaged Leaf

California is the #1 dairy state in the U.S. and one million acres of alfalfa are grown in the state. Alfalfa growers use herbicides to control weeds and insecticides to control key pests-the Egyptian and alfalfa weevils. Organic alfalfa growers do not have effective methods of controlling weeds and insect pests and they incur yield losses – particularly by harvesting early to avoid damage. A recent economic analysis from the University of California estimated that organic production of alfalfa is one ton less per acre which would mean a loss of one million tons of alfalfa if the entire state converted to organic practices.

“The Egyptian and alfalfa weevils are the most serious pests of alfalfa, causing yield and quality losses to the first harvest in late winter/early spring.

Most organic growers rely on early harvest to minimize weevil damage, but yields will be reduced.

The risks associated with the production of organic alfalfa hay should not be minimized. Weather and other risks are a continual concern for conventional growers, but organic growers face additional risks such as pest outbreaks that cannot be adequately controlled with organic methods.

Average annual yields in California range from 5.0 to 10 tons per acre with three to ten cuttings depending on location and alfalfa variety. Eight tons per acre over seven cuttings per year is common in the Central Valley. The crop in this study is assumed to yield 7.0 tons of hay per acre because yields of organic alfalfa are often slightly lower than conventional due to only partial control of many pests and weeds and the difficulty meeting the nutritional needs of alfalfa using solely organic sources.”

Authors: Rachael F. Long, et al.
Affiliation: US Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, Yolo, Solano & Sacramento Counties
Title: Sample costs to establish and produce organic alfalfa hay California 2013
Source: University of California Cooperative Extension. 2013.

California Avocado Production Would be 82 million Pounds Lower with Conversion to Organic Practices

New Orchard Weeds

New Orchard Weeds

California farmers produce 550 million pounds of avocados annually. 8% of the avocado acres are managed with organic production practices. A recent economic analysis by the University of California shows why so few avocado acres are organic. Even though organic avocados receive a price premium, lower yields (15% lower) means lower profits than avocados grown with chemical inputs. The 15% lower yields would mean a loss of 82 million pounds of avocados if all the California avocado growers switched to organic practices. Weeds are the biggest problem for organic avocado growers.

“Profitability estimate of organic avocados in these counties is lower than avocados produced conventionally. Though organic avocados are considered to receive $0.20 more per pound than conventional avocados, organic avocado production shows lower yield than the conventional production.

Based on our discussions with growers and the UCCE farm advisor, organic yield is considered lower than the conventional production. In this study, organic avocado yield is estimated at 15% lower than the conventional yield.”

Author: Etaferahu Takele, et al.
Affiliation: Area Farm Advisor, Agricultural Economics/Farm Management, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Southern California
Title: Avocado sample establishment and production costs and profitability analysis san diego and riverside counties, 2011 organic production practices
Source: University of California Cooperative Extension. 2013.

National Academy of Sciences Credits Herbicides for Adoption of Conservation Measures in the U.S

Tillage vs. Herbicides

Tillage vs. Herbicides

In the early 20th century, American farmland was eroding at an alarming rate. The cause of this erosion was continuous plowing of fields to keep weeds out. When herbicides were introduced to control weeds, farmers could reduce tillage. As a result, there have been major reductions in soil erosion in the United States. The National Academy of Sciences has pointed out that this improvement in conserving the soil would not have occurred had it not been for herbicides…..

“The use of herbicides has reduced the need for growers to cultivate to control weeds and that reduction has led to an increase in the practices associated with conservation tillage. These include no-till, ridge-till, strip-till, and mulch-till—practices that leave at least 30% cover after planting. Leaving cover after planting reduces soil loss due to wind and water erosion up to 90%, and it increases crop residue (organic matter) on the soil surfaces up to 40%. Conservation tillage in the United States has increased from 26.1% of the total acreage in 1990 to 37.2% of the total acreage in 1998. Without herbicides, widespread adoption of conservation tillage would likely not have taken place.”

Author: Committee on the Future Role of Pesticides in US Agriculture
Affiliation: National Research Council
Title: The future role of pesticides in US agriculture
Source: Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources and Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology Commission on Life Sciences. 2000.

Herbicide Use in Finland has Increased Significantly to Protect the North Sea

Herbicide sales: Finland

Herbicide sales: Finland

In 2001, herbicide use began to increase in Finland largely due to government policies subsidizing growers to no longer plow fields for weed control. Finland is a signatory to the North Sea Treaty which includes a goal of reducing nutrients into the North Sea by half. Research showed that a considerable amount of phosphorus moves into waterways with eroded soils from fields that are plowed in the autumn. Thus, growers now are using herbicides to control weeds without plowing in order to keep phosphorus out of the North Sea.

“Our weed survey represented part of a follow-up project on the impacts of agri-environment policy in Finland. For instance, reduced tillage has been one of the subsidized measures primarily implemented to reduce nutrient leaching. Spring cereals, 1.1 million hectares in total, covering 50-55% of arable land, dominate crop production in Finland. In the 1990s ploughing was still the standard tillage practice in spring cereal fields, while the latest statistics show that only approximately half of the cultivated cereal field area is currently ploughed. Ploughing has been replaced with reduced tillage methods (29%) or direct drilling (17%). At the same time, the sales of glyphosate have more than doubled within a decade in Finland.

Increased use of glyphosate in Finland is notable; in 1999, the annual sales of glyphosate products were sufficient to treat about 13% of arable land under cultivation or fallow, while the same figure had increased to 37% in 2010.”

Author(s): Salonen, J., et al.
Affiliation: MTT Agrifood Research Finland, Plant Production Research, Jokionen, Finland
Title: Impact of changed cropping practices on weed occurrence in spring cereals in Finland – a comparison of surveys in 1997-1999 and 2007-2009.
Source: Weed Research. 53:110-120. 2012.