O’Donovan, Dr. John

2003 Winner: Innovation In Agricultural Science Sponsored By Dow AgroSciences Canada Inc.

Dr. John O’Donovan’s pioneering research and technology transfer in the field of weed management can save farmers millions a year in reduced crop losses and herbicide costs while minimizing the amount of pesticides released into the environment. Weeds and weed control cost western Canadian producers more than $500 million annually. Dr. O’Donovan challenged the conventional agricultural practice of relying exclusively on herbicides for weed management and concluded that unnecessary herbicide application is neither cost-effective nor sustainable.

He has developed economic threshold models that help farmers predict the impact of weeds on crop yield to determine if and when a herbicide is warranted. His models take into account not only weed density, but also crop density and the time that weeds emerge. The models have been incorporated into two computerized systems – AgroManager on Weeds™, developed by Western Cooperative Fertilizers (Westco), and Farm Smart™ developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The Westco system is used by more than 1,400 herbicide and fertilizer dealers in western Canada. The economic threshold models can help farmers cut herbicide use by 10 to 17 per cent. A model for wild oat control can save producers between $18 million and $30 million per year. The models also provide farmers with a valuable tool for developing an environmental farm plan, an initiative under the Agricultural Policy Framework.

Dr. O’Donovan led a groundbreaking 10-year multi-disciplinary study in Alberta on the development of weed resistance to herbicides. Weed resistance is caused by over-reliance on herbicides and has created significant problems for farmers in Australia. Dr. O’Donovan’s research provided the first documented evidence of resistance in several weed biotypes across Alberta and has helped prevent the problem from escalating out of control in this province.

Dr. O’Donovan has also developed integrated weed management systems that use less costly, more environmentally friendly alternatives to exclusive dependence on herbicides for weed management. He led several projects showing that practices such as judicious herbicide application together with sowing competitive crop varieties, banding nitrogen fertilizer and increasing crop seeding rates make crops more competitive with weeds and reduce overall use of herbicides. His research identifying barley varieties that compete effectively with weeds has benefited Alberta’s organic crop industry.

Dr. O’Donovan is highly regarded internationally for his expertise and has received several awards for his work. He is also known for his ability to communicate findings from his complex research in language his audience can easily understand – essentially taking knowledge directly from research to farmer.