Some farmers consider traditional means to control weeds

Bringing out the v-blade sweep plow wasn’t a decision Darrell Kaiser took lightly.

It tugged at his conscious. He has been continuously no-till farming his fields in Gove County, Kansas, since 1996, but weeds had grown resistant to every chemical he threw at them.

Faced with a growing chemical bill, he made a decision, he said during a panel discussion during High Plains Journal’s Soil Health U event, Jan. 25, in Salina.

“It was pretty painful to pull some iron in it,” he said, noting he made a single pass with a v-blade on specific weed-prone fields.

“You are putting on more and more (chemicals), and you aren’t getting the results you need,” Kaiser said. “At some point, you have to make the break—it’s probably not the right thing to do but you have to start over and get your system going again.”

He wasn’t the only farmer who considered tillage to combat weeds. Kochia, Palmer amaranth and windmill grass are becoming resilient in the field—defying even multiple applications of glyphosate and a suite of other chemicals.

In this economy, that’s a problem, said Nick Vos, a first-generation farmer in Stevens County, Kansas, where rain comes sparingly. Like Kaiser, Vos said one solution has been to reintroduce cultivation to keep weeds—and expenses—under control.

Vos said he had the biggest issues on his fallow ground.

“We watched the neighbors throw the kitchen sink at the weeds and not get any results,” Vos told the audience. “When you are a small operation, first-generation, you can’t throw money on it. We made a couple passes through the year and went back to wheat.”

Tillage in a no-till system

To determine the effect of limited tillage in no-till farming systems, Augustine Obour, a soil scientist at Kansas State University’s Western Kansas Agricultural Research Center in Hays, is doing his own studies using university fields that have been no-till since 1976. These fields have the same weed issues as most of the panelists’ fields, he said.

Obour calls it strategic tillage, and he is seeing what kind of impact it has on crop yields and soil health.

“It’s a one-time deal to see if we can control these weeds and then go back to no-till,” he said.

Obour said the timing of tillage is important. He recommended tillage in June or July followed by planting a cover crop. At the research site, he does one pass in June with a Minimizer v-blade at about 3 inches deep. He follows that up with a Fallow Master running about 6 inches deep—still trying to leave as much residue on the surface as possible.

“Most of the time you won’t have much erosion,” Obour said of his research.

He planted the ground back to wheat in the fall. In most cases, he hasn’t seen a decrease in yields. He is still doing studies on the organic matter.

Vos said with his weed issues on his fallow fields, he made a tillage pass in June and in August then planted a mixture of cover crops. He has his sheep graze the covers.

“I went and dug into the fields in the middle of December,” he said. “There were still worms everywhere.”

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“It’s not the end of the world”

Vos said his wheat planted on the ground with minimal tillage has a better stand in this “bone-dry” year than his no-till wheat. Moreover, he said, farmers who no-till without cover crops have more of a chance of erosion.

“The guys who have been true no-till without cover crops, they are all blowing right now,” he said.

Natural suppression seems to be the best answer for weed control, he said, but added establishing cover crops in southwest Kansas can be challenging.

“It’s all about timing,” Vos said, adding the one rain event he gets in July might be the right time to get a cover seeded.

With the current dry weather, his rye, triticale and barley mix hasn’t sprouted yet this year. Typically, he might have a good cover crop stand once out of every three years.

“The good thing is, if nothing grows, weeds don’t grow either,” he said.

Vos said he disagrees with those who think a single tillage pass on no-till ground means you must start at ground zero. He recalled how he had to disk an irrigated cornfield twice three years ago. The field had been no-till for seven years.

“Now, three years later, we dug 4-feet deep in the corn roots and you can’t see structure change all the way down. In my opinion, that field didn’t lose anything. We had to make a decision, and we did it.”

He went back with a no-till cover crop rotation.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” he said.

Soil is life

Pretty Prairie, Kansas, farmer Chad Basinger said when he first started farming, he used a plow and chisel to control weeds.

“That is what everyone else did.”

A first-generation farmer, Basinger said he now is predominantly no-till with cover crops but uses vertical tillage to smooth out fields and incorporate lime and other nutrients.

The tillage tool helps sever small weeds, he said. Cover crops also help.

“If the ground is bare, there’s a chance for the weeds to come in,” he said. “We’ve implemented cover crops at all times just to eliminate the chances for weeds to come up.”

Before cover crops, he sprayed his fields three times. Now he just sprays it once to kill his cover crop. That’s been a cost savings, he said.

Kaiser said he is looking at more intensive crop rotation and possibly planting less wheat. He advised those considering tillage for corrective maintenance to have a plan.

“I think as we have learned, keep soil health,” Kaiser said. “It is what will drive us in the future. Soil is your life.

“For our operating, (tillage) is probably the tool of last resort type situation, but it is a tool that is there.”

And, he said, when you’ve been putting a “whole shovel of Roundup on one plant and it comes back in two weeks,” you might reach a certain breaking point.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].