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Ecological weed management: practices and methods

Eco-friendly weed control
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Ecological Weed Management can be defined as a complex of environment-friendly methods and techniques designed to prevent, reduce or remove weeds from agricultural lands or gardens. The methods are based on ecological or biological processes and materials that do no harm to the environment, unlike the harmful chemicals and herbicides that heavily deteriorate the soil and environment of not only the agro-ecosystem but also have an adverse impact on the whole environment through processes like leaching and diseases.

Techniques like establishing crop rotation, mulching, cover crops, water management, sanitation, fertility, tillage, etc pose no threat to the environment, but can also efficiently suppress all types of weeds. The effectiveness of these cost-friendly and easily adaptable solutions to weed-management or organic agriculture and farming, in general, can be largely enhanced by obtaining technical expertise from agriculture platforms like GeoPard Agriculture which gives an integrated and easily-accessible approach to Ecological-Weed-Management (EWM).

Durable improvements in weed management are based on:

  • Understanding ecological principles and processes.
  • Learning the life history, and attributes of problematic weed species.
  • Carefully considering and comparing management options.

Eco-Friendly Weed Control methods

Weeds are regarded as a potential pest causing more than 45 percent loss in yields of field crops, when compared to 2 percent due to diseases, 20 percentage due to insects, 15 percentage due to storage and miscellaneous pests, and 6 percent due to rodents. Weed management takes away nearly one-third of the total cost of production of field crops. In India, the manual method of weed control is quite popular and effective. Of late, labor has become sparse and costly, due to intensification, diversification of agriculture, and urbanization. The usage of herbicides in India and elsewhere in the world is increasing due to possible benefits to farmers. At the same time, the continuous use of the same group of herbicides over a period of time on the same piece of land leads to an ecological imbalance in terms of weed shift, herbicide resistance in weeds, and many types of pollution. Usage of herbicides for controlling aquatic weeds in a pond also reduces dissolved oxygen and pH and increases biological oxygen demand.

Ecological weed management methods

1. Herbicide application may also kill species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa that combat disease-causing microorganisms, thereby upsetting the balance of pathogens and beneficial organisms and allowing the opportunist, disease-causing organisms to become a problem.

2. The complexity of these situations has resulted in a need to establish a holistic, sustainable eco-friendly weed-management program for the entire farming period.

3. With respect to the environment, ideal sustainable agriculture should neither pollute the ecosystem nor be dependent on non-renewable inputs or damage renewable ones. Rather, it should nourish people with nutritious food, and useful feedstocks and provide a satisfying and continuous return on effective investment in agricultural farms. Sustainable & ecological weed management is the utilization of weed-control methods that are socially acceptable, environmentally benign, and cost-effective.

Objectives of sustainable weed-management

Sustainable weed management has the following objectives:

  • To optimally use the resources that are on hand can be used for controlling weeds.
  • To introduce cultivation techniques that not only deal with weeds but also work for the soil and to measure the impact of weed-management systems.
  • To bring out a transformation whereby the chemical herbicides are replaced by renewable energy and recycled mineral resources.
  • To ensure that the farm workers, farm animals, and anyone related to the farm or surrounding areas do not suffer in terms of health.
  • To preserve and improve the ecosystem and nature.
  • To make farming operations economically feasible.
  • To give adequate monetary gains to the farmer to allow for regular production and ensure the well-being of the community
  • To generate enough high-quality and nutritious food.
  • To build on available weed control technology, knowledge, and skills in ways that suit local conditions and capacity.

Organic methods of weed control

Crop rotation

Crop rotation is considered one of the most crucial parts of any ecological weed management. Crop rotation, as the term suggests is rotating several crops in the same land over time in a planned manner. The main reason behind using crop rotation as one of the major methods of ecological weed management is that weeds thrive when the conditions do not change for a long time. If the same type of crop is grown in your area by following the monoculture method, weeds will have no resistance whatsoever in adapting to the same conditions over the years.

Crop rotation

Therefore, the introduction of several crop species or even a fallow period in between to establish a crop rotation will keep the weeds guessing about what’s coming next and they will die off before they can figure out how to grow and multiply in the new conditions. This is an effective method of not only controlling and managing the weeds at present, but it will reduce the need for future weed management significantly in the long run. However, choosing the best crop rotation can be a challenge since you have to consider the nutrient levels in the soil as a result of the cropping pattern as well as the requirements of each plant and how it relates to the potential weed species in the area. Optimizing maximum production and keeping it all organic to manage the weeds effectively requires technical expertise and assistance like the GeoPard Soil Data Analytics and Crop Monitoring.

Cover crops

If there’s one thing that weeds love, then is light. Cover crops are crops that do not permit light to reach the ground level of the weeds so that they cannot germinate in the first place and if they do, their growths will be stunted. The ideal cover crop should have rapid early growth and subsequently canopy closure. Some of the cover crops can be buckwheat, cowpea, radish, or forages. Moreover, the cooling effect, which can be considered a by-product of the shading effect is also very important to suppress weed growth on your farms. Cover crops are an important part of the crop rotation cycle and special care and thought are needed while selecting the best cover crop or more preferably, an ideal combination of cover crops for your needs so that it not only ecologically suppresses the weed for you but can also be profitable either by themselves or by promoting your main crops. It should also be noted that many cover crops also add nutrients to the soils and some can even contribute allele chemicals in the land that serves as weed-inhibitors later on.

Intercropping

Intercropping involves the inclusion of a new crop often in between rows of the main crop. This is usually done to leave no spaces for weeds to grow on your land and has been proven effective in many instances. However, if the intercropping species is not chosen effectively, it can compete for light, water, or nutrients with the main crop and may even have a more harmful effect than the weeds.

Scouting

Scouting has been one of the most reliable methods of gathering information about the extent and degree of weed infestation in your field. Generally, it includes the systematic collection of data on the type, distribution, and stage of crops in your field but in the case of ecological weed management, the data about weeds are gathered to establish a plan to effectively deal with them.

The GeoPard Scouting Agrisolution lets you detect weeds and insects along with other stresses in your field like fungus, pests disease, etc at an early stage with the help of smart scouting tools. With the help of the GeoPard scouting feature, you can automate, plan, execute and report on the scouting easily and effortlessly.

Mulching

Mulching works in a similar way to that of cover crops for ecological weed control. Mulching includes covering the soil in your field with a single or multiple layers of mulches which can be either living, organic dead, or inorganic.

1. Living mulch

Living mulches such as clover are integrated with the field either along with the crop or before/after it helps to suppress weeds but they are generally used mainly for improvement of the soil’s physical properties and fertility. If living mulches are used, they shouldn’t be allowed to compete with major crops by constantly tilling them.

2. Organic mulches

Some of the substances used as organic mulches are straw, bark, sawdust, etc. Newspapers and hays are also often used by making multiple layers. The materials used as organic mulches mainly depend on what type is present in the farm or the area but in general, all should be biodegradable and should add to the fertility of the soil. They act as weed suppressants by heavily blocking the weeds’ access to light and moisture.

3. Inorganic mulches

Plastic is an inorganic mulch that is widely used in all areas across a wide variety of crops and has been developed in such a way so as to only allow the infrared light to pass into the soil layers to warm it but cannot result in photosynthesis. The result of which is a high success in weed management. Although these inorganic mulches do not truly qualify as ecological means of weed management, they are often better than other alternatives like the use of harmful herbicides.

Planting patterns

Planting patterns like the order and alignments in which the crops are planted can also affect the level of weed growth in the future. To manage weed growth through planting patterns, the row width must be made narrow and seeding density must be increased.

Variety Selection

It is essential to carefully choose the varieties of crops so that they can suppress the weeds by maintaining a rapid cover. The ecologies of both the crops and the potential weeds should be carefully studied before choosing the crop species that will best fit the land and also provide optimum returns.

Tillage system

While tilling the soil disturbs the physical integrity of the soil and makes it prone to soil erosion, the implementation of an effective tillage system can help massively control weeds organically and also by minimizing the aforementioned issues. In fields that are not tilled at all, it has been reported that the majority of the weed seed bank is deposited on the topmost 5 cm layer of the soil.

Tillage system in Ecological weed management

One of the most effective uses of tillage in weed management is by introducing only light tillage sometime before crop planting so that weeds germinate beforehand and can be destroyed to reduce the seed bank. Tillage also has other effects on the overall weed control by determining the soil moisture and fertility. The presence or absence of tillage in your field largely determines the volume and vertical distribution of weed seeds in your land.

Sanitation

Sanitation as a method to organically prevent, reduce or remove weeds from our fields is very often overlooked. To prevent the weeds from ever introducing into the fields, the crop seeds used should be properly screened, and only high-quality seeds must be used without any impurities in the form of weed seeds. Furthermore, the equipment and machines used within the field should also be cleaned and made rid of any potential weed seeds. Also, the fertilizers and mostly the organic manures used should be properly decomposed and not contain any potential weeds. To reduce and remove the weeds from your field, sanitation operations weeding by hand can play a crucial role, especially in the early stages.

Nitrogen fertility

The germination, reproduction, and growth of weeds are all promoted by nitrates. We know that the level of nitrogen in the soil determines the species diversity and composition in the land. So we need to control this level of nitrogen fertility in our fields so that it favors the growth of our crops and suppresses that of the weeds. One majorly effective way to do so is to use precision techniques such as GeoPard Crop Monitoring to identify where to focus our nitrogen supply.

Moreover, a more ecological way of dealing with the problem of weeds is to add nitrogen to the field not by dumping chemical fertilizers at once, but by adding legume plant species with the crops that will release the nitrogen in the soil over time and fulfill the nitrogen needs of the crop while limiting the amount needed for weeds to germinate and grow.

Feed the crop, not the weeds

What it means to feed the crop and not the weeds is that we have to be selective feeders in terms of the nutrients we add to the agro-ecosystem. This can be achieved by concentrating fertilizers near the crops or introducing more ecological alternatives like composts and manures to supplement the nutrient requirements of the crops. However, it is very important to understand the ecological needs of both the crops and the weeds properly to be able to use this method effectively.

Water management

If we can properly manage water or moisture in our fields, we can essentially manage both weeds and crops easily to fit our needs. Some of the most useful and innovative ways by which you can use water management for ecological weed management are as follows:

Pre-germination of weeds

Like how light tilling can cause the weeds to germinate sometime earlier than the planting time so that they can be killed through cultivation, light irrigation can also have the exact same effect. The irrigation can either be artificial or can be achieved through careful planning of the crop rotation with the rainfall cycle.

Planting to moisture

This technique usually follows the previous one. After cultivation for weeds removal, no water is added to the top layer of the soil so that it becomes dry and the layer below it contains moisture. During the planting stage, the seeds are planted to the moisture-containing layer and so the upper layers remain dry and weeds cannot grow due to the lack of water.

Buried drip irrigation

Drip irrigation can concentrate the water availability only to a small region for the plant and it can significantly reduce weed germination. However, an even more effective but complicated method is called buried deep irrigation in which water in the form of drip is provided underneath the soil layer directly to the underground roots of the plants so that weeds on the surface have no means of getting water for germination.

Allelopathy

Many plants have the ability to affect, either positively or negatively their surrounding plants by releasing biochemicals called allelochemicals through several parts. Some of the crop varieties that demonstrate allelopathic nature are buckwheat, oats, barley, rye, wheat, etc. Allelopathy if used for weed control is one of the most ecological ways of managing weeds. For that to occur, crops should demonstrate allelopathic harmful effects on weeds. For example, buckwheat has been found to minimize and damage weed populations.

Beneficial organisms

Biological Weed Control

Fungi, bacteria, parasites, insects, etc all carry high potentials to be used as organisms for weed control if proper research and experimentation are performed to ensure their effectiveness and viability. Bird species like geese and chickens and some herding animals are a great way of managing and disposing of weeds in integrated farmland that combines livestock with agriculture. Even fish species have been used to manage algae and hydrilla weeds in aquacultures and aquaponics.

Summary

The concept of Ecological Weed Management mainly involves the use of methods and techniques that replace the conventional use of herbicides and harmful chemicals to deal with the problem of weeds in the agricultural fields. An ideal Ecological weed management system is not just a single method but a combination of several methods that generally starts with selecting the crop rotation for the land and goes on to use ecological and biological processes and materials to leverage the growth and development of crops and stunt the germination, dispersal, and growth of weeds. The specific methods mentioned above should be according to need and in a way that all of them work together to maintain a sustainable weed management system.

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