Controlling Squash Bugs with Trap Crops and Chickens in Missouri

By Debi Kelly on 15 Sep 2017

Squash bugs are major pests among cucurbit, squash, and pumpkin growers. For organic or all-natural vegetable producers like Gary Wenig in Rayville, MO, controlling the squash bugs on his farm without the use of commercially available pesticides has been a challenge.  Rocky Creek Valley Farm is a 40-acre farm owned and operated by Elizabeth and Gary Wenig. They produce and sell a large variety of heirloom vegetables, free range eggs, and herbs. They needed to get a handle on the squash bug problem on their farm, but they didn't want to rely on synthetic chemicals to achieve their goal.
Across the country, producers like the Wenigs are altering their pest management practices to move toward whole-farm strategies based on ecological principles. Clearly embracing what early advocates of integrated pest management (IPM) believed, farmers are acknowledging the benefits of system-wide strategies to control pests.  The Wenigs learned that trap crops could be grown as a control measure to lure pests away from a cash crop. Since the pests are concentrated in high levels in trap crops, they can be treated in a localized area instead of treating the entire field.
“Trap crops have been proven to lure pests away from cash crops, but then the issue is how to kill the insects once they are on the trap crop plants,” said Gary Wenig. “More traditional IPM methods use chemicals to kill pests once they are on the trap crops. That strategy reduces the use of chemicals and associated costs, but does not eliminate the use of chemicals.”
Rather than using synthetic chemicals, the Wenigs wanted to use chickens to eliminate the pests in their trap crop. In 2013, the Wenigs applied to the NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Program and were awarded $6,462 to explore an insect pest control management strategy using a combination of trap crops, beneficial insect crops, and chickens in moveable pens. They hoped that the chickens would kill the squash bugs in the trap crop, thus reducing the number of squash bugs in their cash crop without using chemicals. They also wanted to integrate cover crops as a soil management strategy for pest management.
For their experiment, the Wenigs set up four trap crop plantings around a 2.5-acre vegetable garden. Based on research presented by Jaime Piñero, Assistant Professor and State IPM Specialist at Lincoln University, the Wenigs selected a trap crop mix of blue hubbard and red kuri squash.
Wening’s mobile chicken pen design accommodates 2 to 4 chickens and a trap crop bed. It is 8 feet wide, 12 feet long, and 24 inches tall.
They constructed two 8x12 ft. mobile pens (sometimes referred to as chicken tractors), which were designed to roll over the trap crop plants.
The pens were placed so that the pens enclosed the trap crop plots, and then they placed between two and four chickens in each mobile pen. By confining the chickens in pens with the trap crop plants, they kept the chickens away from the cash crop and avoided damage and contamination issues. To make their pest management program even more effective, the Wenigs incorporated several cover crops to provide other soil and pest management related benefits.
They observed that the blue hubbard was a more effective trap crop than the red kuri squash, and were thrilled when they observed the chickens devouring the squash bugs in the blue hubbard trap crop.
“Bottom line - it was a great success,” said Wenig. “After a number of issues including the weather and a steep learning curve, we saw that chickens, in combination with a blue hubbard trap crop, can be used to control squash bugs in a vegetable produce business.”
For more information on the Wenigs’ trap crop, cover crop, and mobile chicken pen pest management strategy, visit the Rocky Creek’s website at www.RockyCreekValley.com, or the SARE project reporting website.  Simply search by the project number, FNC13-9, at www.mysare.sare.org, or contact the NCR-SARE office.