KUTZTOWN, Pa. — Farmers are in a tough spot when it comes to controlling weeds. Since conventional herbicides aren’t an option, many choose to use tillage — mechanically turning over the soil to upend weeds. However, tillage can take a toll on soil health and cause run-off. Increasingly, organic farmers are seeking better ways to control weeds while preserving soil health.

To help develop solutions for these farmers, researchers at UW–Madison, Iowa State University and the Rodale Institute are embarking on a new project to assess current technologies that could be used in no-till organic systems and determine which practices will help farmers protect soil health in their fields. The project is funded through a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that totals $2.2 million, including matching funds.

“We hope to define a set of best management practices for maximizing organic grain production yield while minimizing environmental impact and improving soil health,” says Brian Luck, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at UW–Madison and project lead. “We are aiming to find the best combination of cover crops, cover crop termination methods, planting dates and planter set-up to maximize yield potential in no-till organic systems.”

With partners in Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania, researchers will have the opportunity to conduct trials at various sites to test planter technologies, cover crop types, planting dates, weed management strategies and more in the first three years of the grant-funded project. They will then use their findings to select the most promising management systems and test them across all of the participating field sites during the project’s fourth year.

Researchers will also conduct on-farm demonstrations for farmers and work to understand farmer perceptions and attitudes toward adopting various practices. They aim to integrate all of this knowledge into guidelines for growers and to disseminate the information throughout organic grain growing regions.

“Testing the methods across locations will ensure that the best management practices for no-till organic production hold up across varying soil types and growing environments,” says Luck. “Farmers will be able to understand what does and doesn’t work when implementing no-till practices in their organic production systems.”

The four-year grant is part of the USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant Program and is a 1:1 matching grant. For every federal dollar received, the researchers match that amount through funds from their institutions as well as donations of time or supplies from cooperating farms and companies. The structure of the grant means collaboration with industry and producers is essential and indispensable.

“We’re excited to receive this funding from USDA-NRCS and to have invested collaborators who see the value of this work,” says Luck. “We think the work has great potential to change typical management practices associated with organic grain production.”

Other researchers involved in the project include soil scientist Matt Ruark and plant pathologist Erin Silva from UW–Madison; agronomist/horticulturalist Kathleen Delate from Iowa State University; and farm director Jeff Moyer and chief scientist Andrew Smith from the Rodale Institute.