Bottom line – it was a great success. After a number of issues including the weather, a steep learning curve and a complete re-evaluation we were able to prove that chickens in combination with blue hubbards can be used to control squash bugs in a vegetable produce business. The addition of the perimeter trap crops brought in a number of beneficial insects. Photographs of the entire project can be seen on our website at http;//www.rockycreekvalley.com/education/studies.html
Rocky Creek Valley Farm is a 40 acre farm owned and operated by Elizabeth and Gary Wenig. We, the Wenigs, produce and sell a large variety of heirloom vegetables, free range eggs and raw goats milk. We also grow a large variety of herbs and manufacture a variety of salves, tinctures and products.
Having both grown up Missouri farm kids from generations of Midwestern farmers we returned to the land in 2001. We have both learned and worked the traditional farm concepts of the 1950’s and 60’s of cattle, horses, feeder pigs, broiler chickens, deep plowing row crops and lots of pesticides. We purchased our current farm in 2009 specifically to break that mold and develop more environmentally friendly all-natural approaches to our vegetable produce, goat dairy and free-range egg business.
Elizabeth is a Certified Clinical Herbalist with a 4 year degree in clinical herbs. She previously worked for a group of medical doctors who specialized in alternative approaches to healing. We conduct herb classes at the farm on traditional remedies, cooking, holistic wellness, animal husbandry and sustainable gardening. Gary’s background is in construction engineering as a consultant to dozens of major corporations. Both Gary and Elizabeth have taught numerous adult educational classes thru the local school district and corporate continuing educational classes. We run a large web presence that includes several blogs, videos, facebook, classes and how-to projects. We attend various farmers markets each week, a CSA program and setup booths at various farm events.
In addition to being opposed to the overuse of chemicals our motivation for being chemical free is a result of Elizabeth’s life threatening allergies to many pharmaceuticals and chemicals. We believe that the gross overuse of chemicals is following the same path as the overuse of antibiotics in the medical industry and livestock industry. They will be rendered useless against drug/chemical resistant pest and crop diseases.
Insect pests are a problem for all vegetable producers. For organic or all-natural vegetable producers like RCV Farm pest control without the use of synthetic chemicals can be a challenge at best. Trap crops have been proven to lure pests away from cash crops but then the issue is how to kill the insects once they are on the trap crop plants. More traditional IPM methods use chemicals to kill pests once they are on the trap crops. This reduces the use of chemicals and associated cost, but does not eliminate the use of chemicals. We propose to integrate a sustainable approach of insect pest control using a combination of trap crops, beneficial insect crops and chicken in moveable pens to kill the insect pests. We will be testing a new concept of placing the trap crop inside of movable chicken pens. The trap crops being used are a combination of Blue Hubbard squash and Red Kuri squash. These trap crop plants have been found by Lincoln University researchers to be effective at attracting the most important cucurbit insect pests. Our primary pest is the squash bug, one of the most challenging pests to control in the Midwest.
Our primary vegetable garden is approximately 2.5 acres encompassed by a 4 ft. wide strip of beneficial insect crops. There will be 4 trap crop plots equally spaced around the 2.5 acre vegetable garden. Each trap crop plot will be a mix of Blue Hubbard and Red Kuri squash. Two trap crop plots will be enclosed in movable 8 ft by 12 ft mobile pen (sometimes referred to as chicken tractors). Our mobile pens are designed to roll over the rather large Blue Hubbard plants. The pens contain laying boxes, water, shelter and allow the trap crops to grow inside the pen. They are mobile to make pest counts easier and to easily move to the other plots each week. The pest counts on the four plots will provide us with quantifiable data to assess the pest count with chickens compared to without chickens. We can also do a comparison between the cash crop counts and the trap crops. We placed 2 to 4 chickens in each mobile pen. This can be adjusted based upon pest counts. Chickens love bugs but, they can cause a large amount of damage to a garden especially soft tissue plants like tomatoes. There is also the issue of fecal matter contamination associated with produce for sale. By confining the chickens in pens with the trap crop plants and keeping them away from the cash crop we will avoid any damage and contamination issues.
We have estimated that 24 Blue Hubbards and 24 Red Kuris will be sufficient for the vegetable garden. They will be divided into four plots; 4 Blue Hubbards and 4 Red Kuri plants each. The sacrificial plants are not part of our cash crop. They will be continuously re-planted from greenhouse stock and the infected plants destroyed by burning in a continuous cycle throughout the growing season. The mobile pens will be rotated weekly using the six locations so that all plots get equal application of treatments. Similar potential damage by the chickens will be minimized. This will allow us to avoid using any types of insecticides to kill the insect pests; that will be done by the chickens (cultural control).
Our goal of placing the chickens in the trap crop is for the chickens to kill the bugs before they can lay eggs. However, if eggs do hatch the chickens should quickly consume the infant pests. If this process is successful it could potentially allow organic farmers to be completely pesticide free.
For an IPM program to be effective it must encompass several components. To make our trap crop program more effective we also incorporate the following beneficial cover crops to provide other soil and pest management related benefits. The more beneficial insects we have the fewer pest insects:
1. Sorghum Sudangrass hybrid: This cover crop plant provides multiple benefits, adding organic matter to worn-out soils. These tall, fast-growing, heat-loving summer annual grasses can smother weeds, suppress some nematode species and penetrate compacted subsoil. In addition, they may harbor beneficial insects such as seven-spotted lady beetles and lacewings.
2. Buckwheat: To attract beneficial insects; it can be cut once to stimulate growth and bloom again after the previous bloom is declining adding to the beneficial insect attraction.
3. Millet: To attract beneficial insects; Millet is a haven for lady bugs, lacewing, hoverflies, parasitic mini-wasps and tachinid flies.
4. Winter Rye: The cash crop area (approximately 2.5 acres) has already been planted in winter rye. In some areas, such as the cucurbits section, the rye will be crimped for mulch. In the remaining areas it will provide organic matter and nutrient replacement.
5. Other Beneficial crops: Within our regular production crops we already grow fennel, dill, yarrow, coriander, tansy, Queen Ann’s lace and other cash crops. These crops along with the buckwheat attract beneficial insects such as lady bugs, lacewing, hoverflies, parasitic mini-wasps and tachinid flies.
6. Bees: We maintain bee hives to support our sustainable agriculture business.
In conclusion this is what we learned and how we will set up next years IPM program:
1. Winter Rye – Works great for weed control. The growing rate and allopathic effects delay the planting time too much to be effective for vegetable production unless you alternate two plots, crimping the rye in the spring and waiting to plant that plot the following spring. It does add a massive amount of organic matter and is highly beneficial for fallow sections.
2. Millet – An absolute must as a perimeter beneficial insect attraction crop. Brought parasitic wasp and lady bugs to the farm for the first time, and in large quantities. Also brought in lacewing, hoverflies, parasitic mini-wasps and tachinid flies.
3. Buckwheat – As a perimeter beneficial insect crop. Also attracted beneficial insects and kept stink bugs out of the garden.
4. Sorghum – Originally planted as a dust control barrier. No quantifiable effects determined other than the perimeter IPM total system was very effective. The whole system brought in lady bugs, lacewing, hover flies, parasitic mini-wasps and tachinid flies.
5. Red Kuri Squash- Although it works to attract pest away from the cucurbits the pest much prefer the blue hubbards.
6. Blue Hubbard Squash – Absolutely will pull the pest away from the cucurbits. Place a minimum of two plots on the outside corners of the garden area. One on each corner would be better. Kill your pest there with whatever method you prefer. Keep a ready supply of replacement plants in the greenhouse. It is better not to mulch under the hubbards; it makes monitoring the bugs much easier if they have less area to hide.
7. Chickens – They will devour the bugs once they settle down in the hubbard area. The must be in the area at dawn and dusk to catch the bugs when they come out of the ground to feed and lay eggs. Next year we will place an electric chicken wire mesh around the plots to protect the chickens from predators at night. Two to four chickens per plot is more than enough to control the bugs. It was determined that 2 chickens are more than enough to control the bugs.
8. Ghost Pepper Spray – This year we pinched the egg clusters off or cut off the entire leaf of the blue hubbard. This also effected the growth of the plant. A spray made with ghost peppers in a short test late in the summer appears to eat thru the egg shell. The few we tested shriveled up and never hatched. This will reduce the damage to the plants considerably since we do not have to remove sections of leaves. Pepper spray does not affect chickens only mammals. Be very careful when using and making the spray. It is organic and also appeared to kill the few catepillers and tomato worms we were able to find and test this late in the season. We will conduct more extensive testing next year. Making pepper spray – put one or two peppers in a blender about half full of water. Puree until completely immersed, let stand 15 to 30 minutes to leach all the capsaicin out of the pepper. Use a strainer and funnel to pour it into a quart spray bottle. Add a teaspoon of Dawn or Ivory dish washing detergent and finish filling with water. Wear eye protection, wash hands well after and use extreme caution. When using in the garden make sure the mist does not blow back into your eyes, wear goggles.
9. Chicken Tractors – This design worked very well and is easily moveable. Construction details and cost are included in our program. The only issue was the wheel brackets need to be metal as wood will just not support the weight. Next year we will encircle the chicken tractor with electric chicken wire to protect the chickens at night.
10. IPM – A 3 or 4 foot wide strip of millet and buckwheat around the entire perimeter of the vegetable production area worked very well. next year we will incorporate it with a farmscaping program to include marigolds, tansy and nasturtium to attract lady bugs, lacewing, hover flies, parasitic mini-wasps and tachinid flies.
11. Winter rye can be easily and effectively crimped using a rotary tiller with the PTO disconnected so that it can free wheel. See our video on our website or YouTube.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Field Day: Susan Jaster, Farm Outreach Worker of Lincoln University assisted us in planning and carrying out our field day for outreach of our project. Pest counts and assessment assistance was provided by Jacob Wilson of Lincoln Univ.
The field day: June 6 2013, gave an overview the benefits of IPM programs, how trap crops work, how to build this moveable pen and a brief analysis of pests and their life cycle presented by Dr. Pinero from Lincoln Univ.
Video and more detailed day-by-day progress logs are available on our website and YouTube as well as our blogs. Our interim and final SARE assessments are posted on line along with the grant proposal. We have a number of How-to Projects and videos on YouTube.
The Entire project was copied to thumb drives and made available to the field day participants and handed out at various farm events and conferences.
At RCV Farm we plan to utilize chickens and blue hubbards to control our squash bugs in the future. We will also be incorporating farmscaping and other beneficial insect plants to develop a more environmentally friendly all natural vegetable produce business. Next year we plan to modify the chicken tractor to include electric chicken fencing so that the chickens can stay in the control area day and night. We will further test the pepper spray on the entire cucurbit crop. We will definitely continue the perimeter trap crop system.
For organic or all-natural farmers cost is not always the most important factor; no pesticides or herbicides is the bottom line for RCV Farm. For people like Elizabeth with extreme allergies it is a life or death issue. A comparison of the base line trap crops compared to the two enclosed plots housing the chickens provided definitive and immediate data on the success of the program. We have also shown that the cost of a mobile pen and chickens will be less than the cost of pesticides to achieve the same result, plus the green benefits to the environment.