Crop Protection Solutions Through IPM Principles

Integrated pest management, more commonly known by its acronym IPM, combines the most effective and safest methods to obtain adequate pest and disease management in crops and landscapes. The concept is decades old, but available tools are as current and cutting edge as the latest research. As research and your experience continue to unfold they can be incorporated into improving your overall IPM plan.

The ingenuity and cleverness in an IPM program comes from combining tools and efforts in a way that most efficiently and effectively deals with pest issues. In other words, putting it all together in a plan.

The Five IPM Steps

Tools available for an IPM plan vary depending upon crop types, but the five basic concepts are consistent, no matter what the crop or setting. They are monitoring, often called scouting for the pests; accurately identifying the problem; deciding on control actions; utilizing pest prevention techniques when possible; and evaluating results and “recalibrating” your plan for greater effectiveness based upon your experience and results.

It is also important to understand the difference between eradication and suppression of pests. Eradication only occasionally works for new pests or diseases that are caught very early in their establishment period and within a limited geographic area. The most commonly thought of example is Mediterranean fruit flies in Florida. For most pests a more realistic strategy is suppression where populations are kept down to “acceptable” levels or thresholds. With aesthetic thresholds, this often means how much damage the customer will accept. And example in the landscape is whitefly suppression on Ficus benjamina before defoliation occurs. With vegetables or other food crops as examples, some insect damage may be acceptable prior to development of the harvested marketable portions of the plants. The level where treatment is necessary is called treatment threshold.

1. Scouting frequency depends on the types of pests or diseases you encounter. For example, monitoring short life cycle problems like spider mites or rapidly developing diseases may require that you take a look once a week, or even more frequently. Nursery operations often train some of the laborers to generally know what to look for. All those extra pairs of eyes add to the probability that problems will be seen early. It also provides opportunities for an employee who may excel at spotting problems to be noticed, and possibly advance their careers into a valuable area. Early detection is key because it often allows the use of less extensive pesticide applications. It also may result in more effective use of biological methods that may help preventatively keep low pest populations low. Biological methods often are not as effective in controlling large pest populations or disease outbreaks. Regular scouting also helps you get to know your crops or landscape so that you can recognize when something “unusual” is occurring, and get to know pest or disease hot spots where problems tend to recur.

2. Accurately identifying pest or disease problems is very important because it allows precise targeting of control or management efforts. An obvious example is when an insecticide is needlessly used when the actual problem was a pathogen. Or, if a fungal disease is the issue, many of the available fungicides may not be effective in helping. Additionally, making the effort to accurately identify helps train you in identifying problems, and thus as a pest management professional.

The question arises, how can the cause of a problem be accurately identified? The answer is by submitting samples to the network of commercial or University of Florida extension diagnostic laboratories. For example, the University of Florida has labs that can identify plant diseases, mites, insects, nematodes, soil nutrients, soil salts and pH, and some limited tissue nutrient testing. Your local county extension agent, depending upon their area of expertise, may also be able to accurately identify problems and/or direct you to these labs. The labs can also be found through an online search. Local pesticide and biological suppliers often have a great deal of expertise and may be able to help identify problems. Also, do not forget about good quality local crop advisors. Developing your own library of pest and disease reference guides and online links for your landscapes or crops will be very beneficial. A couple of useful online University of Florida ones are the Featured Creatures and Solutions for Your Life websites. Be aware, however that plant diseases and nematodes are often more difficult to identify than insects or mites without the use of diagnostic labs.

3. Select tools for control actions based upon research recommendations when available. More detail on tools will be provided a bit later in this article. Sources of information on available tools can also be found at the University of Florida Solutions for Your Life and websites in management guides and publications specific to the crop or plant group that you are concerned about. Other sources of this type of information are again your local county extension agent, pesticide and biological suppliers, other land grant university online and printed publications, and knowledgeable crop consultants. Remember, a good IPM program needs you to properly explore and select the tools that make the most sense for your situations. Over time, you will be able to decide what sources of information are most useful and credible for you.

4. Prevention can be among the most helpful and cost effective pest and disease management tools if enough thought is given prior to planting crops or installing landscape plants. For example, proficient organic producers have learned that fighting pests and diseases with organically approved pesticides is often a frustrating battle. Alternatively, selecting crop varieties resistant to the prevalent pests and diseases, soil preparation for optimal crop growth, planting and harvesting prior to major outbreak seasons, and spot treating with pesticides when necessary can all have amazing results. Clearly, experience and trial and error are part of the costs to gain much of this knowledge. However, plenty of exploration and planning prior to planting are equally, if not more important in many situations. In landscapes, one of the mantras is “right plant in the right place.” This simply means selecting landscape plants that are appropriate for conditions like the soil, climate, sunlight, moisture, nutrient levels, mature size desired and obstructions in the area. This helps produce crops and landscape plants that are less stressed, and thus less prone to pest or disease problems.

5. Evaluation is linked to accurately determining how effective control and prevention measures were, and keeping appropriate records that will help you make improvements the next time similar problems arise. It also helps you eliminate the costs and risks of using ineffective pesticides or tools for the same problem in the future. Another way to look at it is that accurate evaluation helps you refine and target your efforts.

The difficulty in doing all five of these IPM steps is often a lack of time, people or other resources to get them done. An important point to remember is, try and design your IPM program to match your ability and resources to get it done. A plan that it too grandiose is likely to be dropped before long, or be a never ending struggle for those who do not like to give up. Remember, even a simple and easily accomplished plan, if consistently followed is likely to yield better results than no plan. Systematic consistency is the key to a successful IPM plan, so keep it workable. You can always make it more complex or sophisticated if needs dictate and resources allow.

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