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An ASABE Meeting Presentation Paper Number: 12-1337536 Innovative Systems for Weed Control in Small Scale

An ASABE Meeting Presentation

Paper Number: 12-1337536

Innovative Systems for Weed Control in Small Scale Organic Production

John Wilhoit, Extension Associate Professor, University of Kentucky, jwilhoit@bae.uky.edu

Tim Stombaugh, Extension Associate Professor, University of Kentucky

William Pomeroy, Graduate Student, University of Kentucky

Mark Williams, Associate Professor, University of Kentucky

Written for presentation at the 2012 ASABE Annual International Meeting Sponsored by ASABE Hilton Anatole Dallas, Texas July 29 – August 1, 2012

Abstract. The use of herbicides is not allowed in organic vegetable production, so weeds must be controlled by mechanical means, usually by the use of mulches or by cultivation, or a combination of both, as well as through cultural methods. Plastic film mulches, which are very effective at controlling weeds within the vegetable bed, are used extensively in both conventional and organic production, but weed control between the rows of plastic mulch is still very challenging, especially for organic growers. Mulching with round bales of hay and straw is a method used by some organic growers to control weeds. An offset bale unroller offers a simple concept for modifying a standard implement for unrolling hay bales into a new configuration that can straddle a row of plastic and unroll the bale in the space between rows for mulching. It greatly reduces the labor requirements for this practice. Precision cultivation is another important method used for weed control in organic vegetable production. A power steering retrofit for an older, inexpensive cultivating tractor, makes precision cultivation considerably easier, both for bare ground and plasticulture cultivating applications. A study looking at GPS-based automatic guidance system applications in plasticulture vegetable production is giving an indication of some of the potential benefits, but the high cost of the technology isa significant challenge for smaller scale vegetable growers. With the reduction in costs for various automation technologies, it will be important to conduct further investigations into applications of these technologies to benefit weed control for smaller-scale organic production.

Keywords. Organic production, Cultivation, Automatic Guidance, Mechanization, Mulch

The authors are solely responsible for the content of this technical presentation. The technical presentation does not necessarily reflect the official position of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE), and its printing and distribution does not constitute an endorsement of views which may be expressed. Technical presentations are not subject to the formal peer review process by ASABE editorial committees; therefore, they are not to be presented as refereed publications. Citation of this work should state that it is from an ASABE meeting paper. EXAMPLE: Author's Last Name, Initials. 2012. Title of Presentation. ASABE Paper No. 12----. St. Joseph, Mich.: ASABE. For information about securing permission to reprint or reproduce a technical presentation, please contact ASABE at rutter@asabe.org or 269-932-7004 (2950 Niles Road, St. Joseph, MI 49085-9659 USA).

Introduction

Weed control is especially challenging for organic vegetable growers because the use of herbicides is prohibited in organic production. Weeds must be controlled by mechanical suppression, usually with cultivation, mulches, or a combination of both, as well as through cultural methods intended to reduce weed populations.

Plasticulture, the term used for the practice of growing crops with trickle irrigation on beds covered with plastic film mulches, is very effective at controlling weeds within the row and also has strong moisture conservation benefits; therefore this practice is used extensively in both conventional and organic vegetable production. Weed control between the rows of plastic can still be a significant challenge, however. Weeds can hinder access for crop maintenance and harvesting activities, and the crop growth can be adversely affected from shading if the weeds get large enough (Law et al., 2006). Dealing with retrieval and disposal of plastic mulches at the end of the growing season is a major disadvantage of their use, as is the expense. For organic producers, there is also some concern that plastic mulches, while allowable under the rules for organic certification, may leach chemicals into the soil.

Organic vegetable growers almost always must employ some mechanical means of controlling weeds, whether between the rows of plastic, or in the row itself in bare ground production systems (without the use of plastic film mulch). Mechanical cultivation can be done using a variety of tractor-mounted tools, usually in combination with a certain amount of manual weeding as well, especially for in-row weed control.

Mulching is used to control weeds mechanically by impeding germination of weed seed by blocking light and keeping seed from contacting soil, and smothering out growing weeds. Mulching with organic materials such as hay and straw has additional benefits. The mulch can help reduce the need for washing produce, it helps keep soil from splashing onto beds when it rains, reducing certain disease pressures, and the decomposed mulch incorporates readily at the end of the season, adding organic material to the soil (Waterpenny Farm, 2012). The weed control effectiveness of hay and straw mulches depends on the amount of mulch used. The high cost of purchasing enough material to get sufficient weed suppression, and the effort required to apply the materials in such quantities, are disadvantages of the practice (Schonbeck, 2009). Another disadvantage of using hay and straw mulches is that it hinders the use of tractor-mounted tools for cultivating weeds, once the mulch is applied.

A third approach to controlling weeds between rows of plastic (in addition to mechanical cultivation and mulching) is to keep them mowed. Many growers will seed cover crops between rows of plastic with the specific intent of reducing weed pressures through allelopathic effects (like rye) or by out-competing the weeds (buckwheat or millet). The cover crop and remaining weeds are controlled by repeated mowing using tractor-mounted rotary or flail mowers, or even lawnmowers. Controlling weeds right near the edge of the plastic without damaging it is a big challenge with this approach, as it is with mechanical cultivation.

All of these approaches are very labor intensive unless larger-scale, sophisticated equipment is used. Such equipment is often used in industrial-scale organic vegetable production because the economics of scale reduce the per acre costs of the mechanization. For smaller-scale organic producers, the costs of such expensive equipment cannot be justified, so the labor requirements for the various operations required for weed control can be excessive. As a result, many smaller-scale organic operations either get overrun with weeds, reducing efficiency for everything else throughout the production season, or they have to spend so much for labor to keep weeds under control that profits are reduced significantly. Organic producers need cost-

effective alternatives for equipment and methods that can improve the labor efficiency of operations required for weed control.

The Specialty Crops Mechanization program at the University of Kentucky has searching for innovative approaches to controlling weeds in smaller-scale organic production. Three different technologies are being explored as possibilities to help the industry. First, we developed an offset bale unroller that allows round bales of hay and straw to be unrolled for mulching between rows of plastic. It has been used for several seasons in watermelon production. Second, we developed a power steering retrofit for an older, inexpensive cultivating tractor which makes precision cultivation considerably easier. Third, we have been conducting investigations comparing lower and higher cost GPS-based automatic guidance systems for various plasticulture applications. The objective of this paper is to describe these three technologies, show how they can be applied, and report preliminary results from evaluations of these systems for applicability to smaller-scale organic production systems.

Innovative Organic Weed Control Methods

Offset Bale Unroller

Hay and straw make good mulches for suppressing weed growth in vegetable production, but it is very labor intensive to break apart and spread square bales. Using round bales for mulching can reduce the labor requirements considerably because there is so much more hay in each bale than in small square bales, and the round bales can be rolled out to peel off layers that are just about right for mulching between row of plastic. It is still very labor intensive to roll the bales out manually. Commercially available tractor three-point hitch mounted bale unrollers with hydraulically-actuated arms can be used to clamp on the center point of round bales and unroll them in layers by driving forward with the bale against the ground. These implements carry the bale along the centerline of the tractor, so they cannot be used to unroll bales between rows of plastic because there is not enough space to drive the tractor between the rows. In order to make the make it possible to use a bale unroller to roll out round bales for mulching between rows of plastic, we modified a bale unroller by extending the toolbar and adding another mast and lower hitch point, so the bale is offset a sufficient distance that the tractor can straddle the row of plastic and unroll the bale in the space between adjacent rows of plastic (Figure 1). We also added a hydraulic top link so the length of the top link can be increased as the bale gets smaller, allowing the arms gripping the bale to be pivoted downward to keep the bale on the ground as it gets smaller. This keeps the toolbar higher to prevent damage to the plants or the plastic covering the bed. We used this offset bale unroller to apply different hay and straw mulch treatments to watermelon plots at the University of Kentucky Horticulture Research Farm during the 2009 2010 seasons, and also demonstrated its use on several different farms in

2012.

Figure 1. Offset bale unroller unrolling a round bale of straw between rows of plastic

Figure 1. Offset bale unroller unrolling a round bale of straw between rows of plastic mulch.

The modifications to the bale unroller were pretty straight forward and can be made to any standard bale unroller provided that the clamping arms are open at the end where they pivot on the toolbar, allowing the additional length of toolbar to be welded on. We used a Worksaver brand bale unroller for this reason. The offset bale unroller is intended for use with smaller round bales (4 ft width) because they are an appropriate width for mulching between plastic rows on typical bed spacing, and they are considerably lighter than the larger bales, so they can be carried by smaller tractors (around 35 hp minimum). The added-on mast and lower hitch point were configured so that the offset bale unroller can be used with either Category I or II three-point hitch systems. In our on-farm trials, we discovered that if a smaller tractor and three point hitch configuration did not allow the bale to be lifted high enough off the ground for transport (without unrolling it), the arms could be used to clamp on the bale below and to the rear of the bale center point so that it wedged against the toolbar. The bale could then be lifted and transported (without unrolling) to position it at the edge of the field, and then the clamping arms could repositioned in the center of the bale for the unrolling operation. The offset bale unroller uses two hydraulic cylinders, one for the clamping arms, and one for the hydraulic top link, so the tractor used to operate it must have two double-acting remote hydraulic outlets. Prior to the on-farm trials this past season, we added a double control valve so the bale unroller could be operated by tractors with a single remote outlet.

Using round bales to mulch between rows of plastic is most appropriate for vining crops like watermelon and winter squashes, because after the vines have run into the space between the rows it is no longer possible to do mechanical cultivating with a tractor, but the mulch will continue to help suppress weeds. An added benefit of the mulch is that it keeps fruit off the bare soil, keeping them cleaner and reducing the chances for rot. There are additional benefits related to disease and fruit cleanliness because of the reduction in the splashing of bare soil,

and some market grower operations like to mulch all of their vegetable crops. Waterpenny Farm in Springfield, VA uses more than 300 round bales of mixed grass hay a year to mulch all of their 12 plus acres of vegetable crops grown on plastic (Waterpenny Farm, 2012).

There are considerations related to the baled material used for mulching. Straw is considered to be effective for mulching, but it tends to be a lot more expensive than mixed grass hay. In our experiences, fescue-based mixed grass hay tends to roll out in better matted layers than other types of grasses, while freshly-baled wheat straw tends to not be very matted at all, so that a third to half of the bale may fall off when the netting or strings are first cut off the bale. There seems to be better matting (and therefore better unrolling) with year-old bales of wheat straw. Old or spoiled hay that is no longer good for animal feed can be a low-cost alternative for mulching with hay (Stout, 1998). However, in our experiences, the large rotted spot at the bottom old round bales that have been stored on the ground outdoors can make them unroll poorly, as large amounts of hay are left in clumps until the bale is rolled out past the depth of the rot spot.

The possibility of introducing weed seed has been a concern with using hay mulch, and straw from harvested grain can introduce grain seed that can also be a weed problem (Stall, 2008; Relf and McDaniel), 2004). We conducted studies mulching watermelon plots with different hay and straw treatments in 2009 and 2010 partly with this concern in mind, to investigate the effects of different factors on weed control, including the type, quantity, and age of the mulching material used (Wilhoit and Coolong, 2010). Treatments included new mixed grass hay, new wheat straw, year-old mixed grass hay, and year-old wheat straw. The treatments were applied in two thicknesses, one rolling the bales out once (approximately 4 in. thickness) and the other rolling bales out twice (approximately 8” thickness). The treatments were applied to plots of watermelon seedlings growing on plastic-covered raised beds that had recently been mechanically cultivated to leave the bare ground between the rows of plastic clean of weeds right before the vines starting running, a common practice used by growers (Schonbeck, 1996). Weed control effectiveness was assessed at the end of the growing season by collecting all of the aboveground weed material from fixed areas in the plots and oven-drying the material to determine biomass dry matter. In our trials, all of the mulch treatments provided significantly better weed control than the control (no mulchl) both years. The results for the new versus old hay and straw were inconsistent. The double thickness of mulch gave significantly better weed control, but the single thickness was still quite effective, giving an indication that a single thickness of mulch is sufficient. The mixed grass hay in general had fewer weeds than the wheat straw, primarily because there was a lot of wheat grass that sprouted in the plots mulched with wheat. The weed control effectiveness of the mulch treatments decreased considerably through the season, but was considerably better than no mulch, as shown in Figure 2, and it seemed to be sufficiently effective for good watermelon production. Introduced weed seed did not seem to be a problem with the mixed grass hay that we used, but we did see some indication of the potential for a weed problem from grain seed in the straw, as mentioned above.

There is one particular hazard associated with mulching with hay that growers need to be aware of and avoid. Herbicides with the active ingredient amino pyralid (ex. Forefront, Milestone) are sometimes used on pastures for controlling broadleaf weeds. These herbicides are extremely persistent, and hay from fields treated with these herbicides can kill vegetable crops if used for mulch. Anyone considering using hay for mulching between rows of plastic needs to be absolutely sure that the hay is from fields that have not been treated with these herbicides.

Figure 2. Weed control in mulched plots (left side) versus unmulched control (right side). Small

Figure 2. Weed control in mulched plots (left side) versus unmulched control (right side).

Small Tractor Power Steering Retrofit

The Farmall 140 and other similar tractors have the tractor frame offset from the center so that the driver can easily look down directly over the crop row that the tractor is straddling while driving (Figure 3). This feature combined with belly-mounted cultivating tools made these tractors very popular for cultivating row crops, and thousands of them were in use on tobacco farms in Kentucky for many years. As tobacco production has decreased significantly in recent years and market grower vegetable operations have increased, these older tractors have become popular as a low-cost cultivating option for some vegetable growers. While the configuration and excellent over-the-row visibility make these tractors well-suited for cultivation, they are difficult to use for the precision cultivation often required for vegetables because the steering mechanisms have so much play in them.

Figure 3. Farmall 140 Cultivating Tractor There are two main applications for cultivating vegetables, cultivating

Figure 3. Farmall 140 Cultivating Tractor

There are two main applications for cultivating vegetables, cultivating between the rows of

plastic mulch, and cultivating rows of plants growing in bare ground systems (without plastic

mulch).

cultivate the soil right next to the side of the plastic bed without catching and ripping up the plastic. In bare ground vegetable production, there is no weed control from the plastic mulch, so cultivation especially close to the plant is required to give the needed level of control. In order to improve the effectiveness of cultivating vegetables with a Farmall 140, as well as to make it easier on the driver, engineers and technicians in the Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department at the University of Kentucky set out to retrofit an older tractor with power steering.

The retrofit adds a double-ended steering cylinder attached to the front axle with mounting saddles (Figure 3). The steering cylinder is controlled by a steering motor that replaces the original steering shaft. Initially, an automotive power steering pump was added to the front of the engine to provide the hydraulic power for the system. It was difficult to fit an adequate belt drive for the power steering motor in the space under the hood, however, so hydraulic power was instead obtained by tapping directly into the tractor hydraulic system. With the addition of an external relief valve, this arrangement proved satisfactory for the power steering system (Figure 4).

Cultivating between rows of plastic requires good precision because of the need to

Figure 4. Steering motor and hydraulic lines for Farmall 140 power steering retrofit. The power

Figure 4. Steering motor and hydraulic lines for Farmall 140 power steering retrofit.

The power steering on the Farmall 140 has worked very well, greatly improving the operation of the tractor for precision cultivation of vegetables. The first Farmall 140 that was retrofitted for power steering has been used primarily with belly-mounted cultivation tools for cultivating twin rows of vegetables grown in a bare ground system. The equipment for the belly mounted cultivators uses a special frame with three diamond toolbars (Figure 5). Four side knife cultivators are mounted on the middle toolbar, for cultivating between the twin rows. Mounted

on the back toolbar are spring hoe weeders designed to oscillate vigorously just beneath the surface of the soil, to disturb the soil and efficiently mulch and weed up close to the established

plants in the vegetable rows.

this configuration could be used for double rows planted a minimum of 16 in. apart. Note that only one set of spring shoes is shown in Figure 4. The spring hoe weeders have a gap of only about 1.5 in. for the vegetable plants to pass through, so the requirements for precise driving are very stringent. The Farmall with the new power steering performs quite well for this cultivation application. It can be driven fairly easily with sufficient precision at a good speed.

Because of the space requirements for the spring hoe weeders,

Figure 5. Belly-mounted cultivators on the Farmall 140. A second Farmall 140 has been retrofitted

Figure 5. Belly-mounted cultivators on the Farmall 140.

A second Farmall 140 has been retrofitted for power steering using the same system as the first one. This tractor is configured for cultivating between rows of plastic mulch. The tractor straddles the row and has belly-mounted knives and discs for weeding the edge of the plastic (Figure 6). An implement mounted on the three-point hitch with knives for cultivating the middles of the space between the rows rides on gauge wheels that control the depth. The belly- mounted knives dig the soil covering the edges of the plastic to uproot weeds right up next to the plastic row, and the angled discs throw soil back over the edges of the plastic to keep the plastic pulled tight over the raised bed. The weeds right next to the plastic are difficult to control by any means, so being able to cultivate in this way is very beneficial for vegetable growers. The Farmall with power steering also performs well in this cultivation application.

Figure 6. Farmall 140 set up for cultivating between rows of plastic. GPS-based Automatic Guidance

Figure 6. Farmall 140 set up for cultivating between rows of plastic.

GPS-based Automatic Guidance Systems for Plasticulture Applications

GPS-based automatic tractor guidance systems are being used to great advantage in large- scale grain operations, but the cost of the technology is hard to justify for smaller scale vegetable production. With plasticulture systems of vegetable porduction using plastic mulch, there are important benefits to the level of precision possible with GPS-base automatic guidance systems, not only for cultivation as previously described, but also for planting and plastic lifting (part of the disposal process) operations. The Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department at the University of Kentucky has extensive experience and research capabilities with GPS-automatic tractor guidance systems so, taking advantage of those capabilities, a study was initiated in 2011 exploring the applications of GPS-based automatic guidance systems in plasticulture production. Of particular interest in the study is whether the benefits of autosteer could justify the costs in smaller scale vegetable production systems typical of market grower and organic operations.

Field tests comparing the performance of two different autosteer systems, one a high end and the other a smaller-scale economy system, were conducted in June of 2011 at the University of Kentucky Horticulture Research. The higher-end hydraulically-integrated steering system was implemented on a larger (90 hp) tractor pulling a high-end single-row plastic layer that can lay plastic in raised beds up to 8 in high. The lower-cost mechanically-assisted steering system was installed on a smaller tractor (40 hp) pulling a lower-cost single-row plastic layer that can lay plastic in raised beds up to 4 in. high (Figure 7). Both systems used a local RTK (Real Time Kinematic) base station to provide differential correction to the guidance system. Tests were conducted with both systems laying plastic on 7-ft centers both with and without the tractor autosteer engaged, in flat plots as well as following the contour on sloped plots. Plots were 250

ft long, a distance typical for plasticulture vegetable production and long enough to give the autosteer systems a chance to converge to the desired paths. Each of the systems collected GPS data from the tractor as well as from an additional receiver mounted on the implement at a point directly above the center of the plastic-covered bed. Guidance was based on the tractor- mounted GPS antenna.

Guidance was based on the tractor- mounted GPS antenna. Figure 7. Economy version of GPS-based automatic

Figure 7. Economy version of GPS-based automatic guidance laying plastic on the contour.

Processing of the data for assessing the accuracy of the placement of the plastic-covered beds has not been completed, so comparisons between the two systems and between manual and automatic guidance have not been made yet. But various observations were made about the performance of the systems during the field tests. Both systems appeared to be quite accurate most of the time. There were occasional glitches with both systems when the guidance system would swerve at the beginning of row as it was adjusting to find the next row (AB line) to follow. Both systems did a good job of guiding the tractor in laying down a second row of plastic on the contour (next to the first row which was driven manually), but it was obvious that implement drift will be an issue in accurate guidance for subsequent operations such as cultivation or plastic lifting on the same rows. The mechanically-assisted steering system required more attention from the tractor operator than the integrated system, as the motor turning the steering wheel has to be manually engaged and disengaged. The ability of the tractor driver to look back at the bed forming and plastic laying operation was a distinct advantage of the use of automatic guidance systems. This ability would make it easier for vegetable growers to make the required adjustments for the proper functioning of the plastic layer (forming the raised bed, placing the drip tape, stretching the plastic, and covering the edges of the plastic with soil to hold it down), and it could help them avoid problems. On one occasion during the tests, the tractor driver observed the end of the drip tape coming off the spool and was able to stop the tractor within a few feet of the spot, allowing a new roll to be spliced on and avoiding considerable problems caused when this happens unobserved during conventional plastic laying operations.

Even though we have not yet analyzed results and have not yet done any formal testing looking at the accuracy requirements for subsequent operations on the same rows of plastic in plasticulture systems, it has already become fairly obvious that the cost of GPS-based automatic guidance systems will be difficult to justify in smaller-scale vegetable production systems. This is because the potential benefits seem insignificant in terms of actual reductions in labor requirements, which is the primary area that a grower can realize cost savings. The higher end autosteer system carries a price tag of approximately $25,000 including the hydraulically integrated steering system on the tractor, GPS equipment, and required software, etc (but not including the RTK base station). The economy system, at approximately $10,000, would be considerably cheaper, but both systems require a base station for differential correction, an additional cost of approximately $15,000. In smaller-scale vegetable production systems, growers could realize significantly more reduction in labor requirements investing that kind of money in additional tractors or implements than they could ever hope to realize from GPS-based automatic guidance technology.

Another possibility considered was using GPS-based automatic guidance without an RTK base station and instead utilizing a differential correction subscription that would lower the cost significantly, but the accuracy with such systems (+/- 4” to 6”) is not sufficient for precision cultivation applications. On a stand-alone basis, the additional cost of GPS-based automatic guidance may be difficult to justify even with larger-scale organic production systems. But there are definitely some benefits that can be realized with its use in precision cultivation and plasticulture applications. For larger-scale diversified farming operations that already have the technology for use in grain production, it could make good sense to use it to their advantage in organic vegetable production as well.

Conclusions and Recommendations for Further Work

The use of herbicides is not allowed in organic vegetable production, so weed control is very challenging. Mulching with round bales of hay and straw is a method used by some organic growers to control weeds. An offset bale unroller offers a simple concept for modifying a standard implement for unrolling hay bales into a new configuration that can straddle a row of plastic and unroll the bale in the space between rows for mulching. It greatly reduces the labor requirements for this practice. Precision cultivation is another important method used for weed control in organic vegetable production. A power steering retrofit for an older, inexpensive cultivating tractor, the Farmall 140, makes precision cultivation considerably easier, both for bare ground and plasticulture cultivating applications. Because of the great weed control and moisture conservation benefits, the practice of using of plastic mulch and trickle irrigation (plasticulture) is used extensively in both conventional and organic vegetable. A study looking at GPS-based automatic guidance system applications in plasticulture vegetable production is giving an indication of some of the potential benefits, but the high cost of the technology still remains a significant challenge for smaller scale vegetable growers.

With the advances in various automation technologies, and the corresponding decreases in the costs for the technology, there may be new opportunities for marrying older concepts of mechanical guidance, such as guiding off a raised bed or crop row or following a furrow, with sensors for electro-mechanical control of cultivating tools, to give the kind of accuracy required for precision cultivation at a lower cost. There may be possibilities for integrating such systems with lower accuracy GPS technology to give the required accuracy at a lower cost. Finally, even though the costs of GPS-based automatic guidance are unlikely to be justified by labor savings

in current smaller-scale vegetable production systems, there may be possibilities for actual autonomous tractor operation in the future which would save considerable labor. So, it will be important to conduct further investigations into applications of GPS-based and other automation technologies for smaller-scale vegetable production systems.

Acknowledgements

References

Law, Derek M., A. Brent Rowell, John C. Snyder, and Mark A. Williams. 2006. Weed Control Efficacy of Organic Mulches in Two Organically Managed Bell Pepper Production Systems. HortTechnology. Vol. 16(2):225-232. Shonbeck, Mark. 2009. An Organic Weed Control Toolbox. eOrganic article posted on eXtension website. http://www.extension.org/article/18532. Shonbeck, Mark. 1996. Mulching for Weed Control in Annual Vegetable Crops. Virginia Association for Biological Farming. Information Sheet No. 9. Stout, Ruth. 1998. Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent. The Lyons Press; 1 st edition. 224 p. Waterpenny Farm. 2012. Personal communication, Erik Plaksin, Waterpenny Farm.

Wilhoit, J., and T. Coolong. 2010. Weed Control Effectiveness of Hay and Straw Mulches. Between Plastic-covered Beds. In: 2010 Fruit and Vegetable Research Report. PR- 608. Ed. T. Coolong, J. Snyder, and C. Smigell. p. 47.