In his weed ecology course, University of Wisconsin-Madison agronomist Ed Luschei assigns his students a project with only one requirement: “Do something useful for someone.”
Luschei decided to follow his own instructions by developing a Web tool to help Wisconsin farmers better manage the weeds in their fields.
Using data collected at the Arlington research station, Luschei created the “Weedometer,” a speedometer-like graph that displays the emergence and flowering periods of nearly 70 species of weeds commonly found in Wisconsin. By simply scrolling down a menu, users can find a color-coordinated meter along with a picture of any certain weed ranging from bull thistle to yellow foxtail.
The site can be found at http://weedecology.wisc.edu/weedometer/.
Luschei explains that knowing the emergence time of a weed can help farmers know when to spray herbicides. This information also gives farmers an estimate of when they should be on the lookout for a particular weed.
But what is a weed anyway? On his course Web site, Luschei offers about 80 definitions and quotes on the subject of weeds. “It”s a definition game. The fact that they”re labeled weeds means that someone wants to kill them,” he says. “The real question is: Can we control vegetation, and to what extent?”
For someone so tangled up in weeds, Luschei admits that it”s an odd thing to study. He recalls that, as an outdoorsy boy growing up in Oregon, he use to pluck apart field horsetail and use it as a remedy for nettles while hiking.
Luschei started taking ecology courses for fun while studying physics in graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin. “It was just stuff I was dabbling around with,” he says.
Eventually, Luschei decided that as a “young, starry-eyed person,” he wanted to make a difference in agriculture as his interests grew toward the field of ecology. “I didn”t want to spend my life behind a computer,” he says.
Even as an ecologist, Luschei”s master”s degree in physics followed him to the agronomy department at UW-Madison in 2002. Luschei was convinced that he would become the “numerical guy” in the department and would spend most of his time analyzing and graphing field research.
“I was worried that I might end up writing research papers that no one would ever read,” he says.
At the time, Jerry Doll, a now-retired professor in the agronomy department, was busy in the field charting the growth and germination patterns of Wisconsin weeds. He collected his data in the weed garden at the Arlington research station, which contains more than 100 species of weeds found in Wisconsin fields, roadsides, pastures, lawns and gardens.
These phenology charts later became the basis for Luschei”s “Weedometer.”
Phenology, the study of plant and animal life cycles influenced by seasonal and environmental changes, is a well-known art to Wisconsin ecologists. Wisconsin has the only surviving phenology network in the United States.
In his office, Luschei keeps a copy of Aldo Leopold”s 1947 research paper that catalogs the phenology of many of Wisconsin”s plants and wildlife species. “It”s a beautiful paper,” he says with a look of admiration. But he does note, however, that the black-and-white graphs and numbers are lifeless and not convenient for people to interpret.
Luschei spent months trying to analyze the data collected by Doll. “The more I thought about the function of analysis, the more I wondered how I can take these 100 species and make it useful for farmers,” he says. “It”s really important to connect research with its users.”
Luschei found inspiration in a poster from Iowa State University that displays colorful pictures of 12 species of weeds sorted into color-coordinated groups. “This is the most popular bulletin that the Iowa Extension office ever made,” Luschei says. “It really struck me. They were just taking information we already had and organizing it. But people found it very interesting.” This gave him the idea to turn Doll”s phenology graphs into the user-friendly Weedometer.
“We”re missing something important in research,” Luschei says. “Our goal isn”t just to make information available, but to make it digestible.” He has become an advocate for bridging the gap between research and its real-world application.
“We”re not limited by knowledge, it”s just not getting used,” he says. “We need to spend more time thinking about how to connect our ideas.”
This spring, Luschei added a number of improvements to the original site, based on feedback from users. For example, visitors can now add in their zip codes and get adapted information based on emergence cycles in their part of the Midwest. (All the current data reflects conditions at Arlington, in southern Wisconsin.) He also has created a way to look simultaneously at multiple problem weeds, searching by classification of those that haven”t emerged yet, those that are currently a problem and those that are nearing flowering stage.
Also new this year, in collaboration with Extension weed scientist Mark Renz, is the development of a predictive tool to help people understand when invasive plants germinate and when they flower. For example, Renz will be identifying the best intervention strategies for garlic mustard, a rapidly spreading invasive weed that is displacing woodland wildflowers in Wisconsin and much of North America. Timing is everything in stopping its spread in natural and urban areas, he says.
“Since garlic mustard is a biennial plant, prevention of seed development is the key step in the management process,” says Renz. “Many times control efforts are conducted after this, minimizing the success and even sometimes spreading weed seed as a result.”
Luschei would like to create another Web site like the Weedometer that records problematic weather patterns. This information could help farmers who need a window of optimal weather to spray herbicides effectively.