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How To Rejuvenate Overgrown Fields

Occasionally, farm land ends up being neglected during the transition between owners, something that can happen when an estate must be sold because there are no family members interested in taking over. But allowing cultivated fields to remain unattended for a season or two can leave them choked by a mass of waist-high weeds. Returning neglected land to its once productive state can be a difficult and lengthy process.

According to Doug Cattani, a forage seed production specialist at Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives, calling in an expert to help get land back into shape is the smartest strategy, because the best course of action depends on a lot of variables. “It’s really hard to provide an exact [plan] without knowing where the land is located and what the weed problems are,” he says.

Consulting a local provincial agronomist is the best way to begin. “I would definitely go that route,” says Cattani. “He or she would probably know what people have done in the past and what works in a given area. Every situation is going to be different.” Producers, too, will have to draw heavily on their experience in getting the job done.

GET A HANDLE ON WHAT’S OUT THERE

Figuring out what weeds are present is the first step in developing an action plan. The time of year a producer takes over the land can also influence how best to proceed. “If it’s in the spring and you have perennial weeds, most of them will be very difficult to control with a herbicide,” he says. “You’re probably looking at cultivation to keep them in check during the initial growing season.”

Brent Flaten, an integrated pest management specialist with Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture, agrees a high percentage of perennial weeds will pose a big problem. “It may be difficult to control them completely with a herbicide,” he says. “That will determine whether or not you’re going to have to do some tillage.”

Cattani says perennial weeds, like quack grass, tend to put most of their growth into reproduction in the spring, so they are less affected by herbicides during that season than they would be in the fall. “If you hit them with a herbicide in the fall, you’re more likely to get a complete kill.” Annual weeds, however, will pose much less of a problem.

Flaten adds that even if the weed varieties present can be controlled by glyphosate, one pass may not be enough. “You might have to go with higher rates…it may take a couple of applications.”

TRASH TALK

Dealing with the trash cover can also be difficult. Burning a field is one option — where locals laws permit. But in doing so, producers need to exercise extreme caution to prevent causing trouble, like letting large, dense clouds of smoke drift over adjacent highways.

Using a heavy-duty mower to cut the overgrowth is an alternative to burning and spraying. “You could mulch it down,” says Cattani. But not many producers own large, heavy mowers, so equipment purchase or rental costs is a factor to consider. Using a plough or heavy disc, depending on the soil zone and location, are other alternatives. But even that has a downside. “(Depending on) soil type and topography, do you want to be moving soil around? By heavy tillage, are you going to cause other problems?” Cattani says. Tillage could end up burying a high density of weed seeds, effectively reseeding them.

Flaten says in some cases it may be necessary to consider keeping a field fallow for a season. But, like Cattani, he says there are a few things to keep in mind before choosing that option. Erosion risk is top of mind for Flaten. High trash cover, even from weeds, helps prevent erosion at least temporarily.

ZERO TILL STILL AN OPTION

Zero-till seeding isn’t automatically out of the question, says Cattani. But he adds the feasibility of that operation comes back to what weeds are present and what a producer intends to seed. High trash levels may also create problems for zero till operations and for establishing crops. High trash levels and a lot of root biomass could tie up some of the fertility added during seeding, reducing the economic return from the first crop.

Perennials, such as alfalfa, should be avoided for the first few seasons. Annual crops will be more competitive, particularly when weed re-growth is bound to be a problem. Choosing the right grain or oilseed for that initial crop will depend on the specific field conditions.

“The crop you choose will depend on what weeds are present, what you can control with herbicides, and how well the crop will compete with the other weeds you can’t control,” says Cattani. “You may not want to go in with a crop like flax, which is a poor competitor.”

Flaten says seeding a crop that is competitive with weeds, such as barley, for the first couple of seasons might be the way to go. “You’re going to have a huge bank of weed seeds,” he says. Keep in mind those seeds could provide continuing flushes of weed growth during the growing season.

In the end, producers may want to avoid short-term lease arrangements on an overgrown field. Cattani says getting the land back to maximum productivity could take a few years, so producers need to keep the economics of the equation firmly in mind. Make sure you understand the difficulties and have pencilled out the numbers before committing to a lease. “It’s going to be expensive to get that land back into shape,” adds Flaten.

Scott Garvey is machinery editor for Grainews. He also runs a cow-calf operation at Moosomin, Sask. Email him at [email protected]

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.

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