Biodegradable Mulch: Your Next Production Tool?

Vegetable extension-research personnel from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Iowa met on October 5, 2018 to discuss ongoing work and to plan follow-up activities … all toward helping improve short- and long-term farm success. Biodegradable mulch (BDM) was among the most talked-about topics. Dr. Annette Wszelaki of the Univ. of Tennessee led the BDM discussion and she provides comments for VegNet readers below. Also, note that Dr. Wszelaki will expand on these comments and summarize the large amount of research that her and other teams in various states have been doing with BDM, including on commercial farms, at the OPGMA-led Ohio Produce Network Meeting in Dublin, OH in January-2019. That presentation will be an excellent opportunity to gain a thorough update on BDM and its possible place in your toolbox.

Comments and Photos by Dr. Annette Wszelaki, Professor and Commercial Vegetable Extension Specialist, Univ. of Tennessee

Plastic mulches provide many advantages for vegetable production, such as weed and disease management, earliness of harvest, increased yield and quality, and moisture retention. However, plastic mulch use is not without disadvantages, including the cost, labor and environmental issues associated with plastic mulch disposal. Biodegradable mulches (BDMs) offer a potential alternative if they can provide similar advantages to plastic mulch without the disadvantages.

BDMs can look similar to traditional polyethylene mulch (i.e., stretchy and black or white-on-black) or in the form of paper (brown or black, sometimes with creping to give it stretch). They can be laid with a standard mulch layer. BDM’s are designed to cover the soil during the production season, and then begin to degrade as harvest nears. At the end of the season, BDM’s can be tilled directly into the soil. There they will degrade into carbon dioxide, water, and the bacteria and fungi that eat them. The degradation rate varies depending on environmental conditions, but by spring, most remnants will have disappeared.

At the University of Tennessee, we have been working with BDM’s on a variety of crops (tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers) for 10 years. We have found comparable yields and quality to traditional plastic mulch with these crops, but not all biodegradable mulches and crop responses are equal!

Want to learn more about biodegradable mulches? Come to the session Could biodegradable mulches replace plastic in your production system? at the 2019 Ohio Produce Network in Dublin, January 16-17, 2019. In the meantime, please contact Annette Wszelaki (annettew@utk.edu or 865.974.8332) or visit www.biodegradablemulch.org for more information. Many thanks to Jenny Moore, Jeff Martin, the East TN Ag Research and Education Center Farm Crew, and many students along the way for their contributions to this project.

Figure 1. Creped paper biodegradable mulch just after field laying.

Figure 2. Stockpile of polyethylene plastic mulch on a Tennessee tomato farm.

Figure 3. Biodegradable plastic mulch in the newly planted pepper field.

Building a Shared Understanding of Soil Balancing

Everyone would welcome a holistic, reliable, and relatively straightforward way to enhance and maintain soil health on many farms, regardless of their size, product, management approach (conventional, organic) and other characteristics. Some farmers and consultants have long said that Soil Balancing (SB) is that way, a means to loosen and enliven soil, provide essential nutrients, limit weed problems, and enhance crop yield and quality. However, university researchers have largely been unable to support that overall claim or recommend Soil Balancing as the guiding philosophy when making soil, fertility, weed, and certain crop management decisions. With USDA support and the help of many growers, consultants, and others in the industry, an OSU team has been taking another look at the situation, possibly the most comprehensive, collaborative, and long-running evaluation to date.

As outlined in three previous VegNet articles and other references on SB, the philosophy calls for achieving an optimum ratio of calcium, magnesium, and potassium in the soil. This may require large amounts of limestone and/or gypsum and multiple years to “move the needle” on soil chemistry, physics, and biology (and their follow-on effects on weeds and crops) in a positive direction. Regardless, some see the payoff as significant. Importantly, evaluating the economics of Soil Balancing is one component of the OSU-led effort, which began in 2015 and is set to provide valuable new insights. Look for summaries in upcoming publications, programs, and other resources.

A Stakeholder Advisory Committee including farmers, consultants, and university professionals from Ohio and other states has guided the OSU team throughout its work, helping to design experiments and interpret and share findings. Committee members and others visited project research plots on farms near Wooster and at the OARDC and discussed project emerging project findings on August 9 and 10. In this picture, the group discusses the status of plots containing butternut squash, edamame soybean, and dwarf popcorn. For more information, see https://u.osu.edu/vegprolab/research-areas/soil-balancing/ or http://organicfarmingresearchnetwork.org.ohio-state.edu/network_activities/soil_balancing/ or contact Matt Kleinhenz (330.263.3810; kleinhenz.1@osu.edu).

Pumpkin Hybrid Review – 2017

In an effort to help growers select and grow the best pumpkins for their operation, the Integrated Pest Management Program planted a demonstration trial at the Western Ag Research Station in South Charleston to highlight foliage, handle, fruit size, and fruit quality. There were 20 entries from four companies in the trial, with emphasis placed on hybrids that offered some type of disease resistance, primarily to powdery mildew. The intent of the trial was primarily for growers who attended the pumpkin field day to observe differences in plant and fruit quality in person, in order to generate a visceral opinion and appreciation for the hybrid.

The trial was originally direct seeded June 1st, but due to mice damage and flooding rains, was replanted with transplants June 16th. Approximately 75 pounds of nitrogen was side dressed as liquid 28-0-0 on June 9th, with no P or K applied per soil test recommendations. Strategy and Dual were used pre-emerge to control weeds, with shielded applications of glyphosate followed by hoeing and hand weeding throughout the season. Once powdery mildew was detected in these plots on July 24th, they were sprayed on a 7-10 day schedule with a standard fungicide program that alternated several modes of action, per OSU recommendations.

While specific trial data was collected, because it was not replicated or randomized, all calculations for yield and fruit size should be seen as estimates taken from one site, under a specific set of weather conditions. When making decisions about hybrid selection for 2018, this information should be combined with other trial data from around the state or region. This trial was not irrigated, and received above average rain fall for this location based on historical records.

Group shot of pumpkin hybrid trial, large fruit in top row, medium sized fruit in middle row, and small fruit in bottom row.

To obtain average fruit weight, 3-5 fruit of each hybrid per plot representing the largest, smallest, and average sized fruit were chosen and weighed. All other marketable fruit in plot were counted and used in yield calculation, which was based on a 15’ row spacing, 35’ length of row, with plant spacing 3-4’ apart.

If you have additional questions about the trial, contact me directly at jasinski.4@osu.edu.

Yield data from pumpkin hybrid trial, see above for yield estimates. *indicates reduced stand in trial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seed companies and other pumpkin hybrid attributes from 2017 trial. PMR = powdery mildew resistant, PMT = powdery mildew tolerant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Pumpkin Field Day Approaching!

We are under two weeks until the annual Pumpkin Field day on Thursday, August 17th, from 6-8PM at the Western Ag Research Station in South Charleston.

Pumpkin plots at the research station.

This year’s field day will offer beginning and experienced growers valuable research updates regarding disease management, insect management, weed control, and showcase some new pumpkin and winter squash varieties.  Celeste Welty (entomology), Claudio Vrisman (plant pathology), Bryan Reeb (weed control), and Jim Jasinski (IPM Program and emcee) will be on hand to share their knowledge and answer your questions. There be presentations on how to identify and control weeds, insects, and diseases on this crop.

The field day will feature some traditional and new projects on the wagon tour, including a seven-treatment powdery mildew fungicide demonstration trial, a powdery mildew drip irrigation trial, a pumpkin variety trial with 20 hybrids ranging from small to large fruit, and a winter squash variety trial with 11 entries. This season has been marked by periods of heavy rain and cooler than average temperatures, resulting in seven hybrids that are a little behind schedule in terms of growth, having yet to produce any fruit. I anticipate by the field day they will have produced some fruit for you to see, although it may not be mature.

After the formal presentations, attendees will be encouraged to walk around the plots and interact with the specialists and other growers.

There is a fee of $5 per person; refreshments and handouts will be provided.

Pre-registration is requested by August 15th at www.surveymonkey.com/r/pumpkin17.

Here is the rough agenda for the field day:
5:30  Begin check in
6:00  Welcome, introductions, outline of field day
6:05  Board wagons and head to the plots
6:10  Orientation to plots, begin presentations
7:10  End formal presentations, begin plot walks
7:55  Board wagons, complete evaluations
8:00  Field day ends, travel safe!

See the preliminary flyer below for a few more details. Looking forward to seeing you there. Contact Jim Jasinski (jasinski.4@osu.edu) or 937-462-8016 for more information.

Pumpkin field day flyer.

Can Microbial Inoculants (Biostimulants) Enhance Vegetable Yield and/or Quality?

Currently, growers can choose from among nearly two-hundred microbe-containing crop biostimulants advertised to enhance yield and/or limit crop stress. That’s difficult. The production and sale of these products are largely unregulated (unlike biopesticides used in biocontrol). Also, research-based and grower-focused information on biostimulants is limited. People look for input and resources to help them select, use, and evaluate the efficacy of microbe-containing crop biostimulants when applied to field- or high-tunnel grown crops. Contact Matt Kleinhenz and watch for newsletter and other updates regarding various grower-university-product manufacturer efforts to provide that assistance.

That’s a Great Idea! Can I/We Test It?

Every season is an experiment of sorts for growers as they test the idea that the farm can come out on top despite natural, market, human (e.g., labor), and other challenges. Dealing with or reflecting on those challenges leads to questions before, during, and after the season. Questions often relate to inputs, practices, or other components of production and how they influence efficiency, profit, and/or the long-term health of the farm. Conducting an experiment is one way to address a question. Like farming, successful research relies on the best methods.

Now is when many on-farm studies are started and it’s never too soon to double-check objectives and methods. Many experienced investigators, including growers, consultants/advisors, and input suppliers are comfortable with their approach. However, very useful (and, often, free) resources are available to others with questions about on-farm research. As you consider approaches and resources you may use, keep in mind that all research involves comparisons but not all comparisons are done scientifically. Only accepted research methods provide the benefits of scientific comparisons. Non-scientific comparisons can be useful but in different, perhaps more limited ways.

Guides available at the links below explain key principles, and research practices proven to be successful. Many more resources, especially experienced farmer-investigators, are available. Examples in the guides below may not fit your operation perfectly, but messages in them are likely to fit.

Currently, we partner with vegetable growers in Ohio and seven other states in documenting effects of microbe-containing crop biostimulants on crops and farms. We are also part of a national network of investigators that work with growers and others to describe the performance of grafted plants under a wide range of conditions. And, we work with growers and university colleagues to develop a better, more common understanding of the Base Cation Saturation Ratio approach to soil management and its effects on crops, weeds, and farms. Contact me or check webpages (http://u.osu.edu/vegprolab/research-areas/vegebiostimsferts/, http://www.vegetablegrafting.org/, and http://organicfarmingresearchnetwork.org.ohio-state.edu/network_activities/soil_balancing/) for updates on those efforts. In each of them, from planning through sharing lessons learned, we try to follow procedures outlined in the guides below and other resources.

http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Bulletins/How-to-Conduct-Research-on-Your-Farm-or-Ranch

http://ofrf.org/sites/ofrf.org/files/docs/pdf/on-farm_research_guide_rvsd.pdf

http://cropwatch.unl.edu/2016/10-steps-farm-research-success