Maximizing natural enemy-provided control in no-till, field crop systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2010: $10,008.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn


  • Crop Production: foliar feeding, no-till
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Pest Management: biological control

    Proposal abstract:

    Field crop growers in the Northeastern United States have been faithful supporters of no-till farming. In Pennsylvania in 2009, about 80% of the major crop acreage received some form of conservation tillage and 57% and 70% of corn and soybean acres, respectively, were not tilled (USDA-NASS 2009). Other northeastern states have similar rates of no-till adoption. This conservation practice has been widely and increasingly adopted because it reduces soil erosion, conserves water, improves soil health, and reduces fuel and labor costs. An additional conservation benefit that is often overlooked is that no-till farming can allow populations of beneficial arthropods to build up through time. Unfortunately, the potential advantage of increased natural-enemy populations is rarely realized in conventional no-till/cover-crop field-crop systems because of routine use of insecticides prior to, or at, planting. Many growers are, not surprisingly, risk averse and over the years they have become reliant on prophylactic insecticide treatments to protect against early season pests such as black cutworm and true armyworm, which have potential to cause damage, but are notoriously variable in space and time. Needless to say, prophylactic insecticide applications violate one of the main tenets of integrated pest management (IPM) because the treatments are applied without an economic need. Therefore, the problem we see is that field-crop growers are routinely using ineffective prophylactic insecticide applications in early season spray programs. The goal of our project is to help reduce the number of acres in Pennsylvania unnecessarily treated with insecticides. Our project has great potential to increase the sustainability of field crop production in the region. It should decrease reliance on synthetic inputs, allowing systems to behave more naturally with increased natural-enemy populations responding to growing pest populations. Our project will help: 1. Reduce environmental and health risks in agriculture 2. Prevent agricultural pollution 3. Improve productivity, the reduction of costs, and the increase of net farm income 4. Conserve soil, improve water quality, and protect natural resources.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our solution is to quantify and demonstrate in field crops the benefits of 1) avoiding prophylactic insecticide applications and 2) increasing crop species diversity by under-seeding corn with a mixture of rye and clover.

    Our goal is to demonstrate with on-farm research that an IPM approach is more economical and easy to implement.

    In 2009, the cooperating grower on this grant application, Lucas Criswell, attended a presentation given by Jill Clapperton, a Canadian soil ecologist. Following this talk, Mr. Criswell was inspired to drop his early season insecticide treatments from his management strategy; therefore, 2009 represents the first year that his approximately 600 acres of no-till field crops (corn, soybeans, barley, wheat, alfalfa, etc.) did not receive prophylactic insecticide applications and 2010 will be the second. To our knowledge, the experiment we propose would not be possible on any other conventional farms in the area because virtually all the growers routinely apply prophylactic insecticides in Spring. Mr. Criswell is a long time no-till farmer and a board member of the Pennsylvania No-till Alliance, so his experience and opinion carries a lot of weight in farming community in Central Pennsylvania. If we are able to demonstrate real benefits from this approach, it is likely that other growers in the area, as well as other parts of the state, will follow his lead.

    Mr. Criswell has also been experimenting with different crop combinations as a way to provide habitat for natural enemies. A particularly promising combination seems to be a mixture of cereal rye and subterranean clover. This mixture, when underseeded into corn, will provide habitat for natural enemies, but also has great potential to provide alternative food for slugs, the most damaging and frustrating pests of grain crops in no-till fields in the region.

    So, we hypothesize that slugs will prefer to feed upon young clover and rye seedlings, reducing pressure on corn seedlings and allowing the corn to grow more quickly and develop beyond the stage where slug feeding is damaging. Once beyond the four-leaf stage corn plants are not as susceptible to slug damage, but the underseeded crop will remain and continue to provide habitat for natural enemies that will be able to contribute to pest suppression all season long. An additional benefit of the systems is that the clover will provide the corn with a continued supply of nitrogen. The yield benefit or drag of this tactic will be borne out in our experiments.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.