Researcher seeks alternatives to burning

Mitch Lies/Capital Press Oregon State University Extension agent Tom Silberstein demonstrates plant growth in a section of this fine fescue field where he sprayed out every other row. Silberstein is researching whether growers can profitably produce fine fescue without burning the crop.

Alternative methods needed to maintain productivity

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

Oregon State University Extension agent Tom Silberstein is busy these days preparing for a worst-case scenario for the few Willamette Valley grass seed farmers who can still conduct open field burns.

Silberstein is studying alternate production methods that he hopes will allow growers to profitably farm fine fescue in the event lawmakers expand burn restrictions to the Silverton Hills.

Lawmakers in 2009 banned field burning in all of the Willamette Valley except for 15,000 acres in the Silverton Hills, where fine fescue seed is widely grown.

Silberstein's research is funded by field-burning fees, which are being distributed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture to the Oregon Seed Council. The seed council determines where the research funds are spent.

"We're researching alternatives to burning in case that option is taken away," said Roger Beyer, executive secretary of the Oregon Seed Council.

Silberstein is studying several production methods in the hope one or more show promise. To date, a year into the project, it's unclear whether any will work.

"I think we can manage weed control with materials we have," Silberstein said. "The biggest problem we face is an inability to get an economic yield off the stands in their second and third year."

Burning the densely packed fine fescue stands each year thins them and removes weeds, which allows remaining plants to produce high numbers of quality seed.

In one field section, Silberstein is trying to mimic the effects of field burning by spraying out rows and mechanically thatching plants to remove plant competition for the field's soil organic matter and nutrients.

"If I'm able to improve yields over baling, then we can start fine-tuning," he said.

In addition to thinning stands, the idea is to expose a plant's lower crown to sunlight, which encourages regrowth, he said.

Silberstein is also studying whether burning on alternate years will thin stands enough to preserve profitable yields.

Preserving fine fescue production in the area is important on several levels, Silberstein said. The area produces some of the world's best fine fescue seed and the densely packed stands minimize soil erosion in the rolling hills much better than commonly produced alternative crops, such as Christmas trees and wheat.

But to date, growers question whether they can continue to profitably produce the seed if lawmakers expand field-burning restrictions.

As part of his research, Silberstein documented a 30 percent yield reduction in one section of a third-year field after just one year of not burning.

"So far, the research is demonstrating that if those guys are going to survive growing fine fescue, they have to have a burning regime," Beyer said.

Oregon growers produce fine fescue on between 15,000 and 20,000 acres annually, with most of the production occurring in the Willamette Valley. The species also is grown in Eastern Oregon.

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