Pass by Jim Koan's 120-acre apple orchard this spring and you could well spy dozens of baby Berkshire hogs marauding under the trees -- miniature porkers scarfing up fruit and grubbing in the soil.
A case of hogs gone wild?
No. It's an experiment in organic farming gaining national attention, and the pork-and-apple program at Koan's ALMar Orchards in Flushing is getting accolades from Michigan State University researchers who say it may someday help fruit growers reduce pesticide use.
Koan, like many orchard keepers, has long been plagued by the Plum Curculio Beetle, a quarter-inch pest that burrows into the young fruit to lay its eggs. The infestation makes the apples drop prematurely.
The larvae migrate from rotting fruit into the soil. The adult beetle then emerges to attack the remaining fruit, and the cycle continues.
Once an orchard is infected with the beetles, it can take years of diligent applications of pesticides to eradicate the tenacious beetles.
Koan, an organic farmer looking for ways to reduce pesticide use, hit on the idea of using animals to eat the infected fruit along with the larva, interrupting the cycle.
First he tried chickens, but he found them lackadaisical.
Then he imported 250 guineas, exotic African chickens known for their love of beetles. But hawks and owls made off with all but nine of the fowl.
He also considered sheep -- a technique farmers use in New Zealand, but they seemed too large and were easy targets for the coyotes that roam nearby.
"Then the lightbulb went on," he said. "Hogs."
Koan researched Berkshire hogs, known for their sunny dispositions and sharp intelligence. And at 230 pounds full grown, the hogs are a sure match for a hungry coyote.
Koan started with three sows and a boar. By last April, he had nearly 30 piglets.
When the infected apples began to drop five weeks later, he let the piglets into the orchard.
They were in, well, hog heaven, gorging themselves on infected fruit for three days.
"It was a thing of beauty," said MSU pest management specialist and researcher David Epstein, who is studying Koan's experiment and working to get federal grant money to continue the experiment.
"They moved as a team, like little Hoover vacuum cleaners, picking up everything in their paths," he said.
Epstein and Koan were surprised at the success of the flash grazing process.
The piglets ate almost every infected apple in sight. They also helped with weed control, and their sharp hooves aerated the soil under the tree.
Good Fruit Grower, a national trade publication, is to feature Koan's hogs in the upcoming issue.
And Epstein is fielding questions from growers around the country who are hearing about the success.
"Let's just say that if we do the follow-through and we can show that flash grazing is as successful as it seems, definitely people will be interested, particularly those running small farms with direct markets," Epstein said.
Koan plans eventually to market his hogs as organic meat, once they are done cleaning up his rotten apples. He's expecting a new litter of piglets in the spring.
But he's had trouble letting go of his friendly farmhands.
One sow named Olivia has been adopted by Koan's daughter. Olivia walks on a leash and is litter box trained so that she can live in the house.
11. Now is a good time to monitor for mummy berry in
It’s mummy berry season again. The mummy berry fungus enjoyed the snow cover this winter, which provided sufficient moisture for mummies to germinate. However, the rate of germination is lower than last year, with a maximum of 6 percent mummies germinated at this time. The extended cold weather seems to have delayed their development. In addition, some sites are very wet and many mummies may actually be submerged. It is not known how well they can survive waterlogging, but wet soils in general are conducive to disease. At this time, some mummies are showing small finger-like extensions (apothecial initials) and some have small trumpet-like mushrooms (apothecia) ranging from having pin-prick size openings to about 1-2 mm in diameter. At 2 mm (1/12 inch) in diameter, they can start to release ascospores. However, the most spores are released when apothecia are 5-10 mm in diameter (1/4 to 2/5 inch). If there is no leaf tissue on the bushes, it does not matter since infection cannot take place without green tissue being visible. The mummies typically germinate over several weeks to a month, depending on temperature and soil moisture, so there may be more waves of germinating mummies ahead.
What to look for
Blueberry growers should be monitoring for mummies with trumpet-shaped mushrooms (see pictures). The number of germinated mummies (specifically the number of visible apothecia) is a better predictor of disease than simply the number of mummies under a bush, since germination is prerequisite for ascospore release and disease development. Mummy berry occurs primarily at wetter sites and in poorly drained areas; therefore scouting should target those sites. Dry, sandy sites may not have any mummies at all. The mummy berry fungus shoots ascospores out of the apothecial cup as soon as the cup diameter is about 2 mm (1/12 inch) wide. Ascospore release continues until the cup collapses. Longevity of the mushrooms is affected by temperature close to the ground, e.g., at 70?F, the mushrooms may live for less than a week, whereas at 50?F, they can last two to three weeks, and at 40?F up to four weeks. At higher temperatures, the mushrooms expand more quickly (they can almost become dime-sized) and release more spores per day than at lower temperatures. A severe freeze may damage the cups, but research shows that they can partially recover their ability to shoot ascospores after exposure to temperatures of 22?F and above. The ascospores are windborne and can travel fairly long distances (supposedly up to a mile). So even if you don’t have any mummy berry in your field, there is a chance that ascospores can drift in from other fields or nearby woods with wild or escaped blueberries.
Stages of infection
There are two stages of infection. First the developing shoots are infected by the ascopores released from the mummy berry apothecia. Shoot strike symptoms appear approximately two weeks after infection. Shoots are susceptible from bud break until they are about 2 inches in length. Sometimes flower clusters may also become blighted; these are called flower strikes. Both shoot and flower strikes are characterized by drooping/wilting symptoms and a layer of gray spores (conidia) on the surface. These conidia are spread by insects (primarily bees), wind and rain. Bees are attracted to the shoot and flower strikes due to their UV light pattern (a nifty trick of the pathogen) and pick up the conidia on their legs and bodies. Bees then inadvertently deliver the conidia to the flowers where infection takes place.
The conidia infect the flower stigma followed by colonization of the developing fruit, which eventually mummifies and drops to the ground. Flowers are susceptible for about four days after they open. The more shoot strikes there are and the better the weather for pollination, the greater the risk of flower and fruit infection. Cultivars such as Berkeley, Bluetta, Blueray, Earliblue, Jersey, Nelson, Patriot and Weymouth are susceptible whereas Bluecrop, Duke and Elliott are moderately resistant to the disease. Some cultivars are more susceptible to shoot strikes and less susceptible to fruit infection, whereas others are just the opposite.
While there are multiple fungicides registered for mummy berry control, Indar consistently has outperformed other fungicides for both the primary and secondary phases of the disease in Michigan. Indar is a sterol inhibitor fungicide and therefore prone to resistance development in target fungi. It is recommended to limit the number of sprays of Indar to a maximum of two or three per season (five are allowed per the label). Orbit (propiconazole) and PropiMax (propiconazole), which are in the same chemical class as Indar, now both have a supplemental label for blueberries. Indar, Orbit and PropiMax all have a 30-day PHI. In small plot trials in Michigan, we found that Orbit was similar to Indar in the control of shoot strikes, but did not perform as well as Indar for control of fruit infection. PropiMax has not been tested in Michigan, but is expected to behave similarly to Orbit.
For fungicide resistance management, it is important to alternate SI’s with fungicides in different modes of action, such as Bravo (fair to moderate efficacy), Captevate (moderate to good efficacy) Topsin M + Captan or Ziram (moderate efficacy), and Serenade (moderate to good efficacy). Systemic fungicides such as Indar and Topsin will likely provide better coverage of the flower parts (the stigma specifically). Cabrio and Abound have shown poor to fair efficacy in past trials in Michigan. While Pristine did not perform particularly well for control of mummy berry shoot strikes in small-plot trials in Michigan, it provided good control of fruit infection. We suspect that the activity of Pristine is better at higher temperatures; it therefore may be a good option during bloom as it also controls anthracnose, Botrytis and Phomopsis twig blight and canker.
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Organic Vegetable and Crop Outreach Specialist
Michigan State University
C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems
303 Natural Resources Bldg.
East Lansing, MI 48824
For information on organic agriculture production please visit: http://www.MichiganOrganic.msu.edu/
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