Physical Weed Control Strategies for Midwest Vegetable Growers

March 21, 2022
A group of farmers and researchers has been working to generate useful, farm-tested, and detailed observations on the best methods and tools for managing in-row weeds. This image is a Tilmor cultivating tractor with finger-weeders belly mounted.

Managing and controlling weeds can be challenging and frustrating for farmers, regardless of the farm size or crop. Michigan State University (MSU) professor Daniel Brainard knows that weed management represents a significant barrier to the sustainable production of both field and vegetable crops and has been researching and demonstrating tools and techniques for physical weed control.

"Advances in material science and engineering have resulted in new tools and techniques for physical weed control that can help address these constraints and simultaneously improve profitability and environmental health in the North Central region," said Brainard.

Collaborating on Weed Control in Vegetables

Brainard's lab at MSU collaborates with a network of farmers and researchers to generate practical, farm-tested, and detailed observations on the best methods and tools for managing in-row weeds in vegetables. With support from SARE, the team has explored in-row, mechanical cultivation with torsion weeders, flex-tine cultivators, finger weeders, and disk hillers in crops such as squash, carrots, beans, and beets. The group has consulted physical weed control experts in Europe, created videos of the various tools in action, and recorded interviews of farmers and manufacturers describing the tools. They have also hosted multiple Midwest Mechanical Weed Control Field Days, the nation's largest event devoted to weeding tools.

"The consensus from both on-farm and research-farm trials was that the finger weeder and flex tine weeders are versatile tools that work well on a wide range of transplanted and large-seeded direct-seeded crops," said Brainard. "Although the torsion weeder can also work extremely well under the right conditions, it is more difficult to calibrate and integrate into diverse farming systems, and works well under a narrower set of soil and environmental conditions."

A Brainard lab alumnus and horticulture instructor at Lakeshore Technical College, Sam Hitchcock Tilton, said often, the greatest expense in vegetable production is weed control, especially within the crop row. He said these in-row tools could substantially reduce hand-weeding costs for vegetable growers.

"These tools are widely used in Europe," said Hitchcock Tilton. "But there is little documented experience of these tools in the U.S. We wanted to try these new in-row tools and some old ones to see how they can best be used, whether they work better in combination, and their overall promise for growers."

With support from a SARE grant, Tilton tested various in-row cultivation tools on eight cultivars of carrots, hoping that carrots would provide a good reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of each device. Tilton discovered that combining hilling discs with finger weeders resulted in the least hand-weeding in carrots. He said for these tools to work, the crop needed to be larger than the weeds and that the seedbed had to be well-prepared.

"This project has focused on capturing farmer knowledge and experience in using these machines and concisely sharing that knowledge," said Brainard lab alumnus Marisa Benzle. "The SARE grants made it possible to include our farmer-partners from the beginning to the end." 

Dig Deeper

  • The Gallandt lab at the University of Maine and the Brainard lab at Michigan State has created the Physical Weed Control Forum, a space for farmers, researchers, and manufacturers to collaborate and share experiences with physical weed control strategies. 
  • View a video series demonstrating the tools in the field.
  • View a presentation by Brainard and Hitchcock Tilton called "Innovations in Mechanical Weed Control: Nuts and Bolts from Switzerland to Michigan" at the 2018 Indiana Small Farm Conference.
  • Check out the MSU Mechanical Weed Control YouTube channel.

View Related SARE Grants:

Topics: Cultivation, Physical Control, Prevention, Vegetables
Related Locations: Michigan, North Central