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Setting The Tone For Cost Savings

Brian Conary, a lifetime resident of Calhoun County, is a project manager and 12-year veteran of the CCHD vegetation management program. With his team, Conary has developed an innovative and data-driven strategy to maintain the county roadsides to keep them clear of vegetation and safe for drivers. He also is responsible for protecting the roadside environment as a natural area, and is tasked with meeting his goals on a limited county budget.
 

When invasive grasses started to become a problem on Calhoun County roadsides, Conary and his team tried mowing in combination with the use of herbicides to manage the height of the weeds. After evaluating several options, Conary found that Plateau® herbicide from BASF Professional Vegettaion Management (BetterVM) was able to contain the multiple targeted weed species, dramatically reduce the number of mowing cycles by suppressing grass seedheads thereby saving the county money on maintenance. In addition, the program maintained the asthetics and wildlife habitat of the roadsides – successfully meeting all the county's vegetation management goals.
 

Weed Invaders
 

In Alabama, roadside areas are at their most functional when a healthy stand of bermudagrass is present. A native, low-growing grass species, bermudagrass is ideal for roadsides because it requires less mowing and maintenance than species that grow to taller heights.

 

However, bermudagrass is not a natural top competitor. It can easily be outcompeted by invasive weed species like Johnsongrass, a hardy and prolific seed producer. It poses a significant safety hazard for drivers because it can grow to more than 8 feet in height, blocking sight lines. Because of its height, wildlife species cannot forage or nest in Johnsongrass.
 

When it was apparent that the Johnsongrass was outcompeting the bermudagrasss and had to be controlled, Conary and his team used its mowing program to keep the tall grass to a safe and manageable height. This, however, turned out to be expensive and time-consuming. Mowing can also create a hazard for both drivers and mowing teams, and does little to protect the native grass species or wildlife living among the roadside areas.

 

“Mowing consumes a lot of time and money for the department,” Conary said. “To control Johnsongrass and other invasive plants, we were mowing two complete rounds on our roadways every year, which really added up time and cost-wise. It also created a significant safety hazard for our crew. We decided that a combination mowing and herbicide spray program might provide a safer and more cost-effective solution.”
 

Trading an Old Problem for a New One
 

Conary's initial herbicide program involved a springtime application with ¼ ounce of Oust® per acre and 32 ounces of Campaign® per acre, and a summer application of 32 oz/acre MSMA and 8 oz/acre Roundup®. Due to the length of the growing season in Alabama, they were often able to get a third spray round in to hold the vegetation off until first frost. The program effectively controlled the Johnsongrass, and even created some areas where bermudagrass was released, but it also created a new problem: it actually released yellow foxtail, giant foxtail and marestail, also called horseweed.
 

“We thought that controlling Johnsongrass would solve all our weed problems,” Conary said. “Instead, it almost seemed as though we accidentally started a foxtail and marestail release program, which were also weeds we didn't want on our roadsides.”
 

Conary needed to adjust the spray program to address these new threats, so he turned to Greg Wall at Helena Chemical Co., who connected him with the BASF BetterVM sales team.

 

The Right Herbicide for the Job Shows Results
 

After talking with Conary to determine the county's goals, BASF helped him put out test plots of Plateau® herbicide and MSMA on Johnsongrass, foxtail and marestail in the roadsides. After the testing showed effective control of all the problem species, the department made its first application of 6 oz/acre Plateau and 32 or 64 oz/acre of MSMA herbicide to its roadsides. Because Plateau is appropriate for use in natural areas where it is important to maintain native grasses, wildflowers and wildlife habitat, Conary was able to protect the roadside environment as a natural area, an important community requirement, while controlling the weeds.
 

“Plateau is a great fit for the Calhoun County invasive plant mix,” said William White, BASF Sales Specialist. “It not only targets the weed species that are a problem for the CCHD, but it has residual control that keeps working to maintain control of growth over the long-term. Because Conary can spray less but achieve long-term control, Plateau helps drive down the cost of the overall maintenance program.”
 

Using MSMA in conjunction with Plateau helps provides additional solid small broadleaf and grass species control, and is a good complement to Plateau. With this mix, Conary was able to keep Johnsongrass from regaining ground, while keeping the foxtail and marestail at bay and encouraging bermudagrass growth. Conary adds a drift retardant at a low rate and prefers to use the lowest effective active ingredient rate in order to limit potential damage to areas outside the spray zone.
 

Finding the right herbicides also saved the county on its annual maintenance costs.
 

“Before Plateau, we were doing two full mowings each season, but now we mow only once, with minor touch-ups and spot work when needed,” he said. “Although herbicides are an up-front cost, they actually save the county money over the course of the season.”

 

To prove this financial gain to the county, Conary collected extensive data points to reinforce the cost savings he achieved using BASF BetterVM herbicides in his spray program. Now, he has several years of data, showing both the seasonal and long-term cost savings.

 

“Brian not only does a great job at collecting and analyzing the county's cost data to make decisions, but he understands the responsibility he has to the county and the community to save the taxpayer money,” White said. “He's a great steward because he proactively seeks out new ways to enhance his program and use herbicide technology to benefit the public. He prepares very carefully before every application, and understands the full implications of success when his program is properly implemented. His applicators are all highly trained professionals that know how to appropriately apply herbicides. I would put their vegetation management program up against anyone else's in the country.”

 

Advancing Professionalism and Cost Savings
 

In implementing his program, Conary only uses state-certified applicators, and ensures that his team attends all available training offered by the State of Alabama. “In addition to the training, we gather as much current information about invasive plants from the Alabama Vegetation Management Association and the Alabama DOT, so that we can see what new weeds might be coming our way,” he said.

 

Both training and technology have helped CCHD ensure that they provide quality vegetation management, even as they reduce costs. In a time when fuel costs are still rising, finding places to reduce spending has been a challenge in itself.

 

“The staff, fuel and equipment costs have all gone down for our department,” Conary said. “We went from five mowing crews of two to four individuals down to two mowing crews of two people, and two spray trucks. That's a real difference in vehicle fuel costs and human hours. With fuel prices on the rise, every dollar we can save counts.”

 

Sharing Success Across Alabama

 

Johnsongrass, foxtail and marestail are becoming significant problems in other parts of Alabama outside Calhoun County. As Conary's program matured, he gathered vegetation management teams from other counties and from state entities to discuss vegetation challenges and share the results of his successful program.
 

“There are lots of neighboring counties that have similar weed problems, but they may not have the resources to evaluate all the control options like we did,” Conary said. “This was a great opportunity to bring people in from all over and show them what an effective spray program can accomplish. If they can use this knowledge in other parts of the state, I'm more than happy to share it.”
 

After seeing the results and cost-savings, many are eager to implement their own programs based on Conary's success. “These folks wanted to see where we've been and where we're going,” Conary said. “They could see parallels to their own situations, and work out how to get programs going if it's the right fit.”
 

In the minds of many, Conary's program and his careful collection of data put him at the forefront of roadside vegetation management practices in the southeast. “Brian Conary is a real leader in Alabama,” said White. “He's creating a roadmap for program design, responsible application, data gathering and adaptability that is the future of vegetation management in this state.”
 

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