RESEARCH UPDATE: New Farm Research
Outsmarting weeds
New initiative to investigate non-chemical weed management strategies while emphasizing farmers' innovations and insights

By Laura Sayre

Rodale Institute seeks Pennsylvania farmers for on-farm weed management research

Do you pride yourself on good weed management practices? Do you have ideas for weed management strategies or techniques you'd like to test out? The Rodale Institute is looking for farmers interested in collaborating on the on-farm research portion of this project. Researchers are particularly interested hearing from farmers with innovative or alternative weed management practices involving:

  • cover crops
  • equipment modifications
  • timing and type of tillage, planting, and cultivation steps
  • cropping sequences and rotations

Participants would collaborate with TRI researcher Dave Wilson to design and set up replicated on-farm trials measuring comparative weed management effectiveness between two or more treatments. Researchers would make several visits to the farm throughout the season to set up plots and collect data. Cover crop seed would be provided. Planning stages would start immediately, with field work to begin in the spring of 2005. To sign up or to learn more, contact Dave at or 610-683-1467. Pennsylvania farmers only, please.



October 15, 2004: Biologically based weed management is the focus of a new research partnership between the USDA Beltsville Agricultural Research Center's Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab, Pennsylvania State University's Weed and Agroecology Lab and The Rodale Institute.

The term biologically based weed management refers to weed management strategies that focus on weeds' biological or ecological attributes—germination requirements, growth habits, reproductive cycles, etc.—in order to minimize their impact on crops.

Typical biologically based weed management strategies include rotating crops to break up tillage patterns, selecting crop varieties with good competitiveness and weed tolerance characteristics, and incorporating cover crops for weed suppression.

Other weed management strategies, such as field preparation and cultivation, are not strictly biologically based but can still be perfected by taking agroecological factors into account.

The research partnership is projected to extend for four years and will integrate lab, field, and on-farm experiments. "People tend to think of herbicides as relatively benign pesticides, but recent studies are linking them to extremely serious environmental and human health problems," says TRI research manager Dr. Paul Hepperly. "And they are used in vast quantities. There is an urgent need to develop effective alternative weed management strategies for organic and conventional farmers alike." The effort is particularly timely, Hepperly notes, as more and more weeds are developing herbicide resistance.

At USDA-BARC, the project will be overseen by Dr. John Teasdale, research leader for the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab. Teasdale has been a strong advocate for sustainable agriculture and reduced tillage research and has helped pioneer the investigation of vinegar as an organic herbicide.

At Penn State, the project includes fellowship funding for two graduate students working in the Weed and Agroecology Lab, a division of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Both will be overseen by Dr. David Mortensen, an associate professor of weed ecology and director of PSU's Sustainable Agriculture and Crop Ecology Program.

Work at The Rodale Institute related to the new initiative will fall into four project areas: variety trials focusing on weed-crop interactions; weed management in organic no-till systems; weed seed dynamics and the effects of using composted versus raw manure; and on-farm research to document and analyze the best weed management strategies practiced by innovative farmers in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Each of these areas builds on previous research conducted at The Rodale Institute. Variety trials for weed competitiveness in corn, soybeans, wheat and barley were begun in 2003 and continued in 2004. A major goal of the variety trials is to identify and quantify crop traits linked to high yields in the face of weed pressure—traits such as early vigor, early canopy closure, allelopathy, and weed tolerance.

As reported elsewhere on, weed management through the use of cover crops has long been among Rodale Institute farm manager Jeff Moyer's primary objectives. In 2003, Moyer and others designed and built a cover-crop roller to mechanically kill standing cover for no-till planting without the use of chemical herbicides. Ongoing trials are centered on optimizing cover crop management—seeding rates, seeding patterns, and species mixes—to suppress weeds.

Historic and continuing data from The Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial and Compost Utilization Trial will be put to use in the compost and weed seed dynamics research area. In addition, new data will be collected regarding weed seed populations in unfinished and finished compost and in fields previously amended with unfinished and finished compost. This work will be closely coordinated with researchers at the Weed and Agroecology Lab at Penn State.

Finally, TRI researcher Dave Wilson will work with John Teasdale at USDA-BARC to coordinate an on-farm research area designed to quantify best the weed management practices of farmers in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Both organic and sustainable farmers will be recruited and their practices will be documented and publicized for the benefit of others. "Ideally, this group will include farmers potentially interested in transitioning to organic," says Wilson. "There may be old-fashioned knowledge and skills out there that we may want to bring back, or combine with the latest tools and innovations."