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Improving farming practices to enhance pest control

Understanding the influence of crop management practices on invertebrate pest populations so we can decrease the risk posed by pests or even improve the resiliency of crops so they can actually fend for themselves better if they do get invaded.

Pests are a looming threat in agriculture; every acre of crops in Pennsylvania has the potential to be invaded by pests and cause yield loss.  One of the goals of our research is to understand the influence of crop management practices on invertebrate pest populations so we can decrease the risk posed by pests or even improve the resiliency of crops so they can actually fend for themselves better if they do get invaded.  Recently my research has had two foci, one developed in response to a worsening problem in Pennsylvania crop fields, the other an effort to improve crop resiliency.

Slugs, believe it or not, are one of the most challenging pests faced by Pennsylvania farmers.  These often overlooked, uncharismatic herbivores have received little research attention, but they thrive in spring and autumn in low-disturbance, residue-rich environments characteristic of no-till fields.  They feed on a wide variety of crop species, substantially reducing yield.  According to growers, slug populations have been getting worse in recent years and they are desperate for research-based solutions.  In response to this need, my research group has studied slug ecology, trying to understand what influences their populations and feeding.  Our research has revealed very promising results that have caught growers’ attention.  In particular, we have found that some predaceous beetle species may be valuable allies in the fight against slugs and that some species of cover crop can help promote these predators while also directly suppressing slug populations. Notably, we have also recently found that commonly used insecticidal seed treatments may be exacerbating slug problems by disrupting the predaceous beetles. Thus a first step in slug control may be avoiding insecticides, while the second may be using particular cover crop species on their farms.

The value of genetic diversity. Most crop fields in Pennsylvania and the rest of the US harbor little genetic diversity.  This lack of diversity is an asset for facilitating the logistics of farming, but leave fields more vulnerable to insect and disease outbreaks and generally less productive.  Our USDA-funded research and extension project is exploring the value of genetic diversity for suppressing pest populations and improving crop productivity. Our initial research suggests that planting fields with genetically diverse cultivar mixtures will encourage better populations of beneficial insects, fewer pests, and greater yields.  Our current research effort tests this idea in the fields of three farmer collaborators and two of Penn State’s research farms.  A complementary educational effort with Penn State Extension is promoting the benefits of this alternative approach to crop production.

About the Researcher:
John Tooker is assistant professor of insect ecology and extension specialist in the Department of Entomology at Penn State University.  His research and extension programs aim to improve field and forage crop production by understanding pest populations, the pressures that influence them, and the risk they pose to growers’ fields.  Much of his research focuses on understanding the various factors that cause pest populations to change in size, including farming practices and beneficial insect species, with the expectation that we can harness these factors for better pest control.

Contact Information:
Phone:  814-865-7082
Email:  tooker@psu.edu