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Published February 04, 2013, 10:33 AM

Back to the '80s

Will farmers wake up and react to weed resistance?

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Who in the 1980s could have predicted that farmers would be selling corn for $7 a bushel? Or that weed problems could be largely handled with a product called glyphosate, or Roundup? Who would have predicted the advent of the no-till or minimum-tillage revolution?

Controlling weeds has become easier, but there are consequences.

In the mid-2010s, we’re seeing other changes — more sobering. One of the game-changers, in my pedestrian view, is the increased incidence of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Jason K. Norsworthy, professor of weed science in the Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, spoke Jan. 16 at the 15th Wild World of Weeds Workshop in Fargo, N.D. The event was sponsored by North Dakota State University’s Extension Service, and might have been filled with farmers, but it wasn’t. Instead, Norsworthy was talking to a room filled with 80 percent crop consultants.

Officials at the meeting figured maybe 5 percent of the attendees were farmers themselves.

Some said that Norsworthy is a true expert because he’s hundreds of miles from home.

I think the thing that struck me was Norsworthy’s real stories about resistant weeds, and what’s happening in the mid-South. I’ve heard others describe these problems, but each time it seems scarier.

He told one story about the farmer who had 6,000 acres that he kept hitting with glyphosate, increasingly ineffectively, because that’s what he could afford. He finally went broke. The land was picked up by another farmer who had to invest in large amounts of other kinds of herbicides to bring back some value.

He also talked about some land that’s had to be abandoned — abandoned — because it is so infested with herbicide-resistant weeds. The weeds produce millions of seeds, some of which will have resistance.

He talked about farmers hitting fields with pre-emergence herbicides before the crop comes up, and again with a residual herbicide, and again, and again.

One of the attendees at the event works for a major input provider. He said we’ve gotten into the weed resistance thing because using glyphosate has simply been too easy. It has been easy to invest in equipment and land, but now it’s more difficult to manage them.

“Before it was easy, all of these things were hard to do,” he said. “We may have to go back to things that were hard to do because we have to.”

Some of the hard-to-do things involve intense management of herbicides so weeds can be killed at small sizes. There needs to be a much higher degree of concern about rotating to different chemistries so resistance doesn’t set in. Farmers will need to apply “zero tolerance” for some, if not all, weeds to avoid bigger problems later.

Is anybody but me skeptical about “zero tolerance” when it comes to weeds?

Is it possible to kill all of the weeds in field margins when a separate, legitimate goal is to keep buffer strips so the wrong herbicide doesn’t damage a neighboring crop? I have my doubts.

One of the interesting things about Norsworthy’s presentation was his assertion that herbicides don’t appear to be the answer to the problem. He showed recent slides of a moldboard plow that might be used to bury some weed seeds, and migrant, hand labor to chop them.

My mind went back to a time before Roundup ready sugar beets. I thought about the migrant labor, the black soil. I wondered if we’re going back to the 1980s on weed control.