Farmers looking for ways to improve crop production while maintaining soil health for future yields are working with scientists at Utah State University. Because of Utah's arid climate, the soil’s health and weeds provide a challenge to farmers and researchers.
Steve Young, who studies invasive plants at Utah State University, said the list of variables farmers have to deal with in Utah is long enough without adding water-stealing weeds to the equation.
“Weeds are a big issue, they’re everywhere,” Young said. “If you have a cover crop, you can actually outcompete the weeds. That’s really the focus of our research.”
Young is testing cover crops that will grow in harmony with spring wheat, and at the same time compete with weeds limiting the harvest. Young and his team have planted spring wheat as the crop and clover to grow underneath.
Kochia Scoparia is the invasive weed Young is working to beat. He said it shouldn’t be confused with its taller cousin Forage Kochia, which has desirable traits and can be used for fire breaks and grazing.
Normally cover crop trials take years to establish significant results. After only one year Young and his team are surprised by the impacts of the clover.
“Our results are amazing,” Young said. “I did not expect to see the cover crop establish as well as it did.”
Weeds like Kochia Scoparia spread easily because they have no natural enemies to compete with. According to Young, most of the invasive plants come from the Mediterranean area. He said that’s why it is so hard to pin down a cover crop that has useful qualities, but can still compete with weeds.
“We now have a really good story to tell after one year,” Young said. “Then we can take it to the growers and say, ‘This is what we’re seeing.’ Not that we’re going to see this great adoption, but here’s another tool to address the weed problem. As everyone knows, there’s really no silver bullet.”
Reducing inputs to combat the weeds translates to more savings for growers and according to Young, can theoretically lower costs for consumers further down the food supply chain.
“Anytime you put something into something, there’s an effect,” Young said. “I’m talking herbicides at this point. I’m not opposed to herbicides, I think they’re a great tool."
Young said cover crops can reduce the use of herbicides to avoid potential contamination of runoff.