Cultural controls are a vital part of an integrated weed management programme and put less pressure on chemical applications, but unfortunately there is no silver bullet.
Choosing the right cultivation technique for your scenario is determined by soil type, crop choice, available machinery and your own preference. Pay careful attention to your chosen cultivation techniques and remember that a long-term approach is necessary in order to effectively control the black-grass problem.
To get you started, here are five ways cultural controls can help reduce black-grass.
1. Promote black-grass germination
In most cases, the aim of cultivation is to prepare the seedbed and stimulate germination of black-grass which can be sprayed off before the crop is drilled. If this is the case the most important thing is to make sure your cultivation is only just deeper than the drilling depth of the following crop. If drilling is comparatively higher disturbance, it is likely to kick more black-grass seed into life and make the job of pre-em and post-em herbicides much harder.
2. Be careful with the plough
Targeted ploughing can be a very valuable tool. Many farmers choose to use it as a ‘reset button’ when the weed burden is too high and bring clean soil to the surface and bury seed. Black-grass seeds must be within 5cm of the soil surface to germinate. Where seed return is high, ploughing will bury seeds to a depth in which they cannot grow, killing off around 80% of them year on year.
The principle is fine but ploughing must be done to a high standard to properly invert the soil otherwise some black-grass may remain near the surface and germinate. The other factor is making sure that the soil being brought up is clean of black-grass seed so check whether ploughing or deep non-inversion tillage has been used on the land in recent years. Fields that are ploughed too regularly will bring dormant buried black-grass seeds back to the soil surface, only worsening the problem so it is important to know the cultivation history of each field and stick to a strict regime. As a general rule, leave at least 4–5 years between ploughing any particular field.
Targeted ploughing can see reductions in black-grass of up to 75-96% when used in an otherwise min-till system.
3. Target deep cultivation
Deep cultivation is there to remove compaction. If soil structure is good down to depth then there is little need to cultivate deeper because all that is required is some tilth to sow into and a little disturbance to cause weed germination. Dig soil pits and use yield maps to identify any zones suffering from deep compaction and deal with these areas separately. Usually the areas most affected are headlands and hollows where water drains away last.
4. Good quality seedbeds
For subsequent pre-emergence herbicides to be effective, a good seedbed is important. Seedbeds should have a fine but firm tilth in order to get the most out of residual herbicides such as Liberator (flufenacet + diflufenical). A fine, even tilth will allow for a more even coverage of pre-ems, preventing pockets of untreated soil where black-grass can later emerge.
A seed bed that is dry with cloddy lumps can provide a haven for weeds seeds over winter where chemicals can't reach them, putting a great deal of pressure on post-ems.
Most importantly a good seedbed will help the crop get up and away quickly so it can compete directly with weeds.
Rolling can be useful both before and after drilling. Rolling shortly after cultivating will help weed seeds germinate through soil contact, and allow black-grass to be sprayed off before drilling.
If delayed drilling cannot be achieved due to weather constraints or if soils are likely to be unfit to travel if postponed, rolling after drilling but before any pre-emergence herbicide application will encourage black-grass to germinate quickly when pre-ems are at their most effective. The roll ensures good soil-to-seed contact and maintains moisture, helping to promote germination, and also minimises slug damage to the crop.
Black-grass control is the biggest agronomic challenge facing most UK arable farmers. If you have black-grass, taking steps to reduce the population is key, while farmers fortunate enough to be free of black-grass need to keep it that way.
Trials can provide a great source for ideas but putting them into practice commercially can be challenging. The Black-grass Task Force project aims to help translate the excellent trials work demonstrating how to control black-grass into field scale practices.