With glyphosate’s years in the weed control toolbox potentially numbered, AHDB is carrying out an autumn black-grass trial to determine if a pre-drilling alternative can be found to the herbicide.
In the project’s first year, the tramline trials laid out this autumn compare the farm’s standard approach to pre-drilling weed control using a power harrow and glyphosate, with a Vaderstad Cultus heavy duty spring tine with narrow points and levellers and a Bomford pigtail tine with wide duck-foot points, both without the use of glyphosate.
Heavy soil types
The trial field has large areas of different and heavy soil types, which were reflected in the weed populations and pre-treatment, black-grass was only found on the headland of one tramline with 41 plants, but not in any of the treatment tramlines.
ADAS’ Dr Sarah Cook, who is leading the trials at AHDB’s Strategic Farm West in Warwickshire, believes the main reason for this is the vast number of spring barley volunteers (400/square metre) outcompeting the black-grass and changing the temperature and moisture levels of the soil.
Cultivations were carried out on September 18, 2020, and repeated on September 30 on the plots without glyphosate.
All plots were then drilled on October 1.
At a cultivation depth of 3-8cm, the farm standard approach of a power harrow and glyphosate kept seed in the top layer of the seedbed and spring volunteers were ‘well destroyed’, Dr Cook says.
She adds: “The [Bomford] spring tine with no glyphosate was at 4-7cm [depth], so still shallow and did not bring up any mysteries from the deep or populations in the seedbed.
It left soil in a mini ridge and it didn’t manage to remove all the spring barley volunteers and some survived.” The Cultus was used at 4-8cm deep, but up to 10cm on light parts of the field and only 2cm on heavier soil.
This variability could bring in problems if used as a stand-alone treatment without glyphosate, Dr Cook says.
Although the tilth produced better than with the Bomford spring tine, the Cultus left large, 15-20cm sized clods on the heavier soil.
Spring barley removal was also better with the Vaderstad, but still left a lot of barley volunteers intact.
On October 26 the crop was assessed at growth stage 12-13 where good establishment was seen across all of the treatments.
Black-grass remained minimal but cleavers were found in high numbers on parts of the field with medium loam soils.
Four months post-drilling, at the end of January, volunteer barley remains a problem across the whole trial but is particularly bad in the plots where glyphosate was not applied.
Cleavers and some charlock and groundsel are also still present, but farm manager Rob Fox says black-grass is his biggest concern.
“Broad-leaved weeds in cereal crops don’t concern me as much because we have plenty of options like Ally and Starane to take it out.
Being an aggressive plant, you have to get cleavers early enough but they’re fairly easy to control.
It’s the volunteer cereals and grass-weeds where our options are hugely limited.” Once fields dry up in spring, spring barley volunteers will be treated with Topik (clodinafop).
Mr Fox adds: “My long-term worry is any black-grass legacy in there.
It’s a very varied field for black-grass and there’s some very bad areas in it and some very clean areas, so it will be interesting to see what’s there come June.” The farm’s standard method of attack against black-grass is glyphosate pre-drilling or a spring crop following glyphosate.
Currently the trials are not showing much variation between the different machinery passes and how many weeds are present, Mr Fox says.
“The issue with cultivating two or three times more than we normally would is expense, fuel use, carbon release and creating too fine a seedbed which is not weatherproof.
If we get rain before drilling, then the top two-three inches [of soil] turns to mush.” The same trial was attempted two years ago, but the hot, dry September meant soil was too hard and then it did not stop raining, highlighting the challenges of potentially losing glyphosate as a vital pre-drilling tool.
In a wet autumn, attempting cultivations could exacerbate black-grass problems, Dr Cook adds.
“If you move wet clods around, black-grass is very good at surviving, wheat isn’t so good and black-grass will just re-root.”
To combat this, Dr Cook advises striving to reduce black-grass populations and seedbank now, while glyphosate is still a tool that can be widely used and targeting weeds at the white thread stage when they are their smallest and most vulnerable.
Further trials by AHDB found that much lower levels of blackgrass are typically seen in both winter and spring crops where an autumn cultivation is adopted, regardless of whether glyphosate is used (see graph).
However, the jury is still out when it comes to cover crops and more work is needed to truly understand their long-term impact on weed populations, says Dr Cook.
“Cover crops definitely suppress weeds and alter the atmosphere, conditions and surface of the soil and discourage other seeds from germinating, but we don’t have a lot of information on what happens to those seeds – are they waiting for opportunity to germinate? Cover crops also bring in more predators to eat seeds.
A good crop will also compete against black-grass, so a competitive crop is probably the key thing here.” Loss of glyphosate would also severely impact cover crop management, she adds.
“Often a cover crop can turn into a weed. If you can’t get rid of it, you have competition against your crop.”