Farmers Ponder Prospect of Spraying

6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

HOLTWOOD, Pa. — To spray or not to spray?

That was the big question among growers at a recent tour of wheat and cover-crop plots at a farm owned by Steve Groff, a partner in Cover Crop Solutions LLC, one of the organizers.

Jeff Graybill, a Lancaster-based agronomist with Penn State Extension, the other organizer, said the recent wet weather could subject grains, including wheat, to Fusarium head blight — a fungal disease that can cause serious crop losses.

“The spores are pretty ubiquitous,” he said, adding that the steady rains that fell for about a week early in the growing season could cause problems for even the hardiest of crops.

If that happens, as wheat starts to mature, about 25 percent of the plant’s head can be killed by the fungus.

“It turns white,” Graybill said.

But knowing when to apply fungicides as a preventive measure can be a guessing game.

“A lot of farmers didn’t want to take a chance and went ahead and sprayed,” he told the 30 or so people who gathered for the tour.

Graybill also said that folks who plant such crops as barley and wheat to use as a winter cover crop and forage for animals should pay attention to timing their fungicides.

“You have to be aware of the label,” he said.

Cover crops prevent the loss of plant nutrients to runoff during the off-season and help condition the soil for summer crops. They can also provide a spring harvest of animal feed.

Generally, 30 days must pass after the chemicals are applied before the crop is harvested for feed, Graybill said.

Groff said there is a learning curve to obtaining the maximum benefits from cover crops, adding that management practices vary from location to location.

He showed a variety of species and talked of the benefits of mixing multiple cultivars to create a more pest-resistant crop and improve the odds of better harvests.

“You’re spreading your risk,” Groff said.

John Tooker, a Penn State entomologist, said he expects Groff’s mixed plots to produce better yields than those with a single breed of plant.

“There seems to be a lot of promise to it,” he said.

For a blended crop, Tooker uses seeds that have a similar maturity rate. That way, “the pests don’t just spread across the field without stopping,” he said.

But Tooker also cautioned that not everyone agrees with the concept.

“I’ve been challenged with this idea by a bunch of folks,” he said. “Logistically, it’s hard.”

So far, most U.S. seed companies — unlike those in Europe — want nothing to do with the idea, Tooker said.

“I hope we’re on the leading edge of this,” he said.

Tooker also talked about slug management, which he said hasn’t been a problem so far this spring.

Weather conditions for the area have jumped from cool to warm, back to cool, then hot and dry, he said.

“(The slugs) just don’t do well when it’s hot and dry,” he said.

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