BOZEMAN –  Researchers at Montana State University are leading a collaborative grant across the four-state Northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest regions with a multi-pronged attack on what is said to be the chief hardship in organic farming – perennial weeds.

Field bindweed invades an organic cereal cropping system. (MSU photo courtesy of the Western Agricultural Research Center. )

A four-year, $2 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Organic Research and Extension Initiative has been awarded to MSU.

MSU agriculture faculty will lead a consortium that will work jointly with Montana organic farmers to find control methods for bindweed and creeping thistle. Co-investigators are located at Washington State University, Oregon State University, North Dakota State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Station in Sidney.

For many organic producers across the Northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest regions, field bindweed and creeping thistle are the most challenging and detrimental weeds in their organic cropping systems – the weeds choke out crops, steal vital nutrients from plants, disrupt fields and reduce profits. So far, there is no magic bullet for their control on organic farms.

For other organic producers, bindweed and creeping thistle infestations have meant taking fields and large acreage out of organic management altogether. In doing so, farmers have been forced to give up their USDA organic certification in favor of herbicides not allowed in organic systems just for some measure of weed control.

The funding will allow statewide experiments at three of MSU’s agricultural research centers and eight statewide organic farms with bindweed and creeping thistle infestations. The farms will mirror the MSU research experiments and farmer cooperators will be active participants and will help researchers collect data on their farms and interpret analyses, according to Patrick Carr, superintendent of MSU’s Central Agricultural Research Center and principal investigator on the grant.

The research, Carr said, will operate as a multi-faceted approach that includes an array of experiments with livestock grazing, cropping rotations, soil microbiology and tilling tactics. Additionally, the grant includes faculty investigating soil microbial communities and plant genetics.

Montana produces more certified organic wheat than any other state in the county and ranks second in total organic grain production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2018, Montana harvested 437,105 organic acres, according to the Mercaris Organic Acreage Report.

Despite Montana’s growing organic agriculture industry, perennial weeds continue to challenge long-term organic production methods and yields, according to Ole Norgaard, owner of North Frontier Farm by Shonkin.

Norgaard said creeping thistle and bindweed can “become so bad that these weeds end-up dictating what you can and can’t do” in organic farming.

“The grant is a big step forward in working together and implementing new ways of thinking,” Norgaard said.

Norgaard, chair of the Organic Advisory and Education Council, said Montana’s organic farming community has been firmly committed over the years to bring bindweed and creeping thistle to the forefront of organic research.  In 2012, the OAEC surveyed organic grain and vegetables producers in Montana on issues they face. Field bindweed and creeping thistle control were at the top of the list, according to Norgaard.

“A couple of years ago we funded a systematic review of previous studies of field bindweed and creeping thistle control and management in organic and diversified cropping systems, which was completed by researchers from MSU,” Norgaard said. “The survey reports and systematic reviews are valuable groundwork for MSU researchers in addressing these perennial weeds.”

The literature that turned up in the survey mostly originated from other land-grant universities in the Midwest region prior to the 1940s. The fact that most of the research emerged around the time of the Dust Bowl was evidence enough for the need for on-farm trials in Montana, Carr said.

“At that time, the common practice was constant tillage,” Carr said. “We need to develop effective management that doesn’t rely so heavily on tillage, so that we can preserve the soil.”

A creeping thistle infestation in an organic farm in western Montana. A new grant jointly managed by Montana State University, Montana farmers and a four-state region intends to find new methods of suppressing field bindweed and creeping thistle infestations in organic systems. (MSU photo courtesy of the Western Agricultural Research Center in Corvallis. )

Perry Miller, professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture, said controlling perennial weeds even in university research is the top challenge, calling creeping thistle “a game changer.”

“Our goal is to find something that helps manage this weed,” Miller said. “We don’t know what tools are most important, when and where. We might learn something unexpected in trying these various tools.”

Zach Miller, Western Agricultural Research Center superintendent, said the research will benefit conventional agriculture as well.

“These weeds are all over the state and in every kind of system,” Miller said. “I think with using certain rotation sequences, using the right tools and at the right time will allow producers to still make a profit. We have a lot of insight into different treatments that would complement those on the conventional side of production, too.”

MSU co-principal investigators on the grant include: Carr; Anton Bekkerman, associate director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station and associate professor of agricultural economics; Kate Fuller, MSU Extension economics specialist; Jed Eberly, MSU assistant professor of agronomy and soil microbiology; Irene Grimberg, associate research professor; Emily Meccage, assistant professor and forage Extension specialist; Perry Miller; Zach Miller; Fabian Menalled, Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education director; and Tim Seipel, Extension weed and invasive plant ecologist.

Additional co-principal investigators are; Ian Burke, professor of weed science at Washington State University; Heather Estrada, agricultural professor and agriculture program director at Flathead Valley Community College; Alice Formiga, assistant professor at Oregon State University; John Gaskin, supervisory research biologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Station in Sidney; and Greta Gramig, associate professor of weed science at North Dakota State University.

- Jenny Lavey, MSU News Service -