Farmers attending the recent Ohio No-till Conference heard about some of the difficulties that can come with no-till and cover crops, but dedicated no-tillers assured the crowd that dealing with those problems is worth the effort. “There are these little hiccups out here, but do you throw the baby out with the bathwater? No!” said Neil Badenhop, who no-tills his own farm in Wood County and also works as a representative for Valent. He and crop consultant Mike Snyder, who works in Seneca, Ashland and Coshocton Counties, opened the conference with a session on battling slugs, voles and other varmints that can hurt no-till crops. “If this is going to discourage you from no-till and cover crops, you’re looking at things wrong,” Snyder said.
Snyder recommended that no-till farmers be prepared to handle slug issues quickly if they occur by having equipment available for spreading slug bait and by scouting to catch problems early. “You have to be on top of it,” he said.
Monitoring fields for slug activity in the fall can help predict problem areas for the following spring, Badenhop added. “Throw out a shingle and peek under it in two or three days,” he said. Slug populations that show up in the fall are likely to cause problems the following year, but pinning down threshold numbers for treatment recommendations is not an exact science because so many factors affect slug reproduction and growth, he added. “This would fall under the ‘art’ category of farming.” Badenhop also suggested that green cover crops might help limit slug damage by acting as a distraction for slugs.
While cover crops protect the soil over the winter, they can also protect small animals such as voles from predators, Snyder said. He hasn’t seen a consistent pattern to vole activity, but they tend to be more of a problem with heavier cover. One strategy is to use a drill to plant rye cover crop seed, rather than broadcasting it, to limit the seed as a food source and to disrupt vole runs with the coulters. Encouraging predator birds with convenient perches at the edges of fields can also help, Badenhop said. Populations can be reduced with anticoagulant baits as well.
If crop stand damage from slugs or voles is in isolated patches in a field, the impact on yields might be minor, but control is still important because breaks in the crop canopy can give herbicide resistant weeds a toehold. The closing speaker at the conference, Jeff Stachler, an Ohio State Extension educator based in Auglaize County, reviewed the university’s weed monitoring research and discussed control methods. Most Ohio farmers are well aware of the threat posed by herbicide resistant Palmer amaranth, but resistant waterhemp is now becoming a concern in the state as well, he explained. “We really need to treat waterhemp like Palmer amaranth; if you have it you need to get rid of it.”
Waterhemp is becoming particularly troublesome in the livestock-intensive counties west of Interstate 75. Like Palmer amaranth, it has prolific seed production and seeds can persist in the soil for years. Although season-long infestation is not as damaging to yields as Palmer amaranth, losses can still reach 44% with waterhemp, and control can become expensive, he warned. Both weeds will continue to emerge into August, so soil applied, residual herbicides are necessary for control once the resistant weeds infest a field. “That’s what’s going to make the cost go up,” he said. Some biotypes of waterhemp in Illinois have already developed resistance to five herbicide modes of action, leaving farmers with limited control options, Stachler added.
The equipment and technology available for no-till and cover crop production continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of farmers, according to conference speaker Steve Groff, a farmer from Holtwood, Pa. He also moderates an online cover crop discussion group and webinar series at covercropinnovators.com. “We solve one problem, say with cover crops, and we create another one,” Groff said. Solving those problems is what makes farming interesting and challenging: “That’s why I love farming.”
Groff and other panelists responded to questions from the audience concerning production problems. For instance, pollen dust from cover crops can plug air intakes on tractors. Groff suggested switching from rye to triticale to avoid pollination during the planting window, rolling the cover when it is covered with dew or during a light rain, delaying field work until pollination is over or installing a reversible fan on the tractor. Audience members chimed in with other suggestions: Putting pantyhose over the air cleaner to filter out more of the pollen, and stopping every couple of hours to use a portable blower to clear out the pollen.
The panel also discussed strategies to maintain planting depth consistency for no-till corn. When gauge wheels run over residue, they can cause inconsistent planting depths. Bill Lehmkuhl of Precision Agri Services in Minster, Ohio, recommended using row cleaners that move residue beyond the width of the gauge wheels.
Switching to narrower gauge wheels might cause problems for farmers who use the same planter for both no-till and tilled fields. However, those who no-till everything might consider narrower gauge wheels, Groff said: “If you’re no-tilling, the next planter you buy should have narrow gauge wheels.”
Lehmkuhl also pointed out that some new row cleaner designs do a better job of cutting through and parting cover crops. Air adjustable row cleaners are also available on some new planters, which allows pressure to be easily adjusted to match field conditions.