Older farm implements ideal for organic system

They say one person’s trash is someone else’s treasure.

A researcher says the same could be said for older farm equipment.

And that is true for some older farm equipment that organic farmers could use, says University of Saskatchewan researcher Steve Shirtliffe.

Shirtliffe said rod weeders, rotary hoes and Noble blades languishing in the back 40 can be valuable pieces of equipment for weed control.

Organic farmers are always looking for ways to reduce tillage and still keep weeds in check.

Conventional farmers have moved on to newer minimum till technology, but organic farmers still rely on cultivators, discers and harrows.

However, soil erosion is becoming a bigger concern, so researchers are looking at how best to accomplish minimal tillage and weed control under organic cropping systems.

Cover crop termination is also an issue.

Shirtliffe told the April 2 Organic Crop Improvement Association research and education committee conference in Regina that some of the older technology will work.

For example, in-crop weed control can be accomplished with a rod weeder and used pre-emergence for best results. He has seen weed-free crops some years when rod weeders were used this way.

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Rotary hoes are also old implements that were standard in the Midwest United States for soybean production for many years, Shirtliffe said. They were used to break up soil crust and for weed control.

Eric Johnson began studying the use of rotary hoes for in-crop weed control at Agriculture Canada’s Scott Research Farm five years ago and found they work even with a lot of crop residue.

Shirtliffe said the rotary hoe needs

dry conditions and good timing. Weeds at the white thread to early cotyledon stage are easily removed.

“Do these have a place here? Possibly.”

They are easily found for purchase online, he added, similar to the ubiquitous discer in Saskatchewan.

Experiments on pulse crops showed they could withstand four or five passes before yields declined.

The Noble blade is another old-timer. Research in Lethbridge is examining the use of this implement to terminate green manure crops with little soil disturbance.

Shirtliffe said it was too wet in Saskatoon last year to undertake the experiment, but preliminary results from Lethbridge look promising.

A study began in 2010 to look at a barley-pea cover crop termination using different treatments: the Noble blade, flail mower, roller crimper, roller crimper followed by fall cultivation, double disc and tilled fallow.

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Few producers are using a roller crimper, such as Rite Way Manufacturing’s Crush-Rite, to knock down growth without disturbing the soil, but Shirtliffe said that research also looks promising.

Work at the University of Saskatchewan has found weed regrowth was far less when plants were rolled and mowed rather than tilled.

However, Shirtliffe also said the plants are slow to die and there are concerns about wheat yields in the following year. Yields increase slightly after tillage compared to rolling, likely because tillage stimulates mineralization in the soil.

Research in Manitoba that compared rolling and tilling found yields were lower in a straight no-till system in two out of three years. There was no effect in the third year.

In terms of in-crop harrowing, Shirtliffe said the key is how it’s done rather than the tool that’s used. Operators have to be able to remove larger weeds but leave the crop seedlings.

“It’s often a judgment call on whether you’re doing enough on the weeds to justify damaging the crop.”

Researchers at the University of Maine are looking at German technology called the Schmoozer EPP Cultivator to catch larger weeds through inter-row cultivation.

Shirtliffe showed a video of the manually guided implement at work, with an operator sitting on the cultivator behind the tractor.

It said the cultivator is designed to work with wider row spacings and specific control of weeds in smaller scale organic farming. It uses a three-point hitch and hydraulic assisted manual steering and can travel six m.p.h.

Shirtliffe said the machine is expensive: $6,000 for a two-metre cultivator.

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