Successful growers from across the country share their thoughts on Best Management Practices in potato production.
Pests in their many forms — rooted, winged or microscopic — are a problem for any potato grower. Eradicating weeds, bugs and diseases in a way that’s environmentally sustainable but also makes economic sense is a primary goal of using an Integrated Pest Management strategy.
We posed the question of best management practices in IPM to three growers from across the country: Michel Camps of Alberta, P.E.I.’s Thomas Hamill and Eugene Antworth of New Brunswick. Here’s their take of the best of the BMPs.
“Two main objectives for producers are to grow potatoes in an environmentally sustainable way, leaving the environment in as good of shape as or better than previously, while providing a return on their investment,” says Hamill.
“The IPM program provides these two objectives by using pest control when thresholds exceed economic levels greater than the cost of treatment,” he says. “BMPs have been determined with rigorous potato research to determine optimal thresholds.”
Hamill says a basic tenet of IPM is that not all pests need to be treated depending on the level of infestation. “Thresholds allow years for non-treatment using fewer crop inputs, lowering costs while lessening impacts on the environment.”
Antworth maintains that under the threshold principal, there should be fewer instances of pest control products being overused, which should contribute to reduced resistance in pest populations.
Remember the 4 Rs
Antworth says under IPM, producers should always be mindful of the 4 Rs — applying the right pest control product at the right rate, right time and right place. An important prerequisite for that, he adds, is crop scouting.
“Scouting lets me know what’s going on in the fields at the ground level, and helps in making the right decisions,” he says. “It’s important to scout, determine the correct economic threshold, then apply the 4 Rs.”
Use High-Quality Products
Sometimes, choosing the right product for pest control may mean spending a little more.
“We use some chemicals on our operation that are not necessarily the cheapest, but they do work,” says Camps. He believes high-quality pest control products, while often more expensive, require fewer applications because they do the job more effectively, reducing the impact on the environment.
Antworth says he, like any farmer, understands the importance of getting the most value for your money. “An IPM program will limit my sprays, so I’m only spraying when needed. Naturally, I’m going to want to spray the product that does the best job, for the best buck.”
An essential element of managing weeds and insects is to reduce their resistance to pest control products. One of the best safeguards for preventing resistance is to rotate active ingredients and modes of action.
“On our operation, we follow a fairly strict chemical rotation schedule, where you don’t spray two insecticides or fungicides with the same mode of action back-to-back,” says Camps.
Make Use of Technology
Camps says these days, technological innovations like GPS-equipped sprayers make it much easier to monitor where and what types of chemicals are applied on farmers’ fields, and in what kinds of conditions.
“With the sprayer that we have, the GPS keeps track of everything that you do. Later on, if we find that we have an issue or see that some application didn’t work properly, we can go back and check exactly what we did. We can look at the records and see what the weather was that day [and] if that played a factor,” Camps says. “The GPS has definitely been a great improvement.”
Antworth says he’s had a lot of success with the Dacom Agri Yield Management system, an IPM initiative from McCain Foods. Under this system, weather and environmental data is collected and analyzed for the purpose of providing growers with guidelines to make informed decisions regarding irrigation, pesticide application and nitrogen needs of their crops. “It’s a very important tool,” he says.
Antworth, whose farming practices include a one-in-three rotation, says rotating crops helps break up the life cycle of pests.
Camps uses a one-in-four rotation on his farm, which includes two root crops — potatoes and sugar beets — as well as grain and corn. “Planting cereals in between the root crops really makes sense to me,” he says. “There’s enough land available here to do one in four, and I find for my farm that works the best.”
Camps stresses the importance of understanding treatment options for different crops when it comes to applying pest control products. “People [need] to realize how chemicals work. Sometimes it might be better to control a pest in a rotational crop, than [try to do it] in the actual potato crop,” he says.
“In our cereal crops, we can use some chemicals to control some weeds which either can’t be controlled or are very hard to control in potatoes. That leaves us with a greater chance of having a weed-free crop when we rotate back into potatoes.”
Camps says he employs minimal tillage on his potato fields; by not ploughing, this helps cut down on the spread of weeds. “We try to keep as much of the weed seeds in the top layer of the ground so we get a quick emergence on it early in the spring. Then with a relatively harmless and inexpensive [glyphosate] chemical, we can burn off our first flush of weeds.”
Antworth says using a one-hill pass system when cultivating will result in less field disturbance, reducing the spread of weeds and diseases while helping to protect roots and enhancing the plant’s ability to withstand pests.
Hamill points out that it takes several hundred years to build up just one centimetre of soil, so it’s important to protect this precious resource. Growing cover crops, he says, is one way to help reduce soil erosion, because it results in fewer bare fields.
Camps agrees. “It tends to get pretty windy here in the fall, [so] we try to sow winter wheat after potatoes to keep [the soil] from blowing away,” he says.
Improve Soil Health
Cover crops not only help prevent soil erosion, but they also act to fight pests while improving soil health.
“Applying cover crops such as rye grass mixed with clovers helps to add soil organic matter. “Such crops also help to break pest lifecycles while improving soil health,” says Hamill. “Healthy soils are determined by regular soil tests, which will determine any nutrient deficiencies. If there are any deficiencies, numerous practices can be applied, from planting cover crops to build organic matter, to using synthetic and/or organic nutrient applications to optimize soil health and reduce erosion.”
Antworth agrees. “You need organic matter in the soil to produce a good potato crop. It’s very important to soil health.”
Buy the Best Seed
In addition to healthy soil, healthy seed is another key ingredient for a vigourous potato crop. Hamill says that’s why it’s important for growers to buy the best seed they can get their hands on.
“Like in race horses, there’s a huge difference in genetics for potatoes,” he says. “You want to be purchasing the best possible genetics and seed lots that you can.”