SPIRITWOOD, N.D. — Tyler Elston has learned that cheap cattle feed isn’t always cheap — especially if it’s loaded with Palmer amaranth weed seeds.
Elston, and his wife, Tori, operate TE Cattle Co., a 2,000-head cattle feedlot, breeding stock and crop farm near Spiritwood in east-central North Dakota.
Elston usually looks for something affordable and readily available to feed.
Three years ago, he says David Buskohl, a Wyndmere, N.D., truck company owner, approached him about buying sunflower seed screenings. Elston said he understood the screenings were from Fargo, and he assumed they came from Red River Commodities Inc., a big name in the region’s sunflower trade.
It wasn’t until 2020 that he learned screenings he’d received included Palmer amaranth numbers more than 400 times the limit for noxious weed seeds. Palmer amaranth is a major threat to cropland, with populations of the weed somewhere in the U.S. known to be resistant to every major category of chemical typically used on soybeans and resistant to many chemicals used on corn.
Agronomists and officials found “millions” of Palmer plants in Elston’s fields in 2020.
The North Dakota Department of Agriculture requires noxious weed control. North Dakota State University has a test plot at the site. Besides his normal herbicide costs, Elston and his family will pay an extra $30 an acre on 1,000 acres — $30,000 per year. Indefinitely. (In the past, North Dakota State University officials have said aggressive tillage and herbicides can knock down the problem over a period of six to seven years.)
Elston wonders whether the North Dakota Department of Agriculture could have — maybe should have — done more to warn producers about screenings from Red River Commodities. On June 5, 2019, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture had confirmed that Red River Commodities was the source of Palmer in sunflower screenings that went to a Vesta, Minn., feedlot, east of Marshall in southwest Minnesota. On June 5, 2019, Minnesota issued a cease-and-desist order preventing any screenings from sunflowers originating in southern states.
Eric Christianson, president and CEO of Red River Commodities and other top operations officials at the company didn’t immediately return messages from Agweek.
Meanwhile, Elston was still getting deliveries of the tainted seed until August 2020, when his infestation was discovered.
“That’s when I quit getting them,” Elston said. “No sense spreading weeds.”
Tyler and Tori are no newbies in the cattle industry, or farming.
Tyler and five brothers grew up on a farm about six miles to the north of where he farms today. Tyler went right into his own ranching after graduating high school in 1999. (Three of his brothers, Wesley, Dan, Ryley, today are involved in separate farms in the area.)
He established Tyler Elston Farms, which includes crops and a feedyard.
He and Tori run TE Cattle Co., with 300 head of purebred cows and a commercial operation of about 700 cows.
Tori also grew up with cattle at Center, N.D., where her father was a coal miner but kept a cow-calf herd.
In 2013, the couple built a 999-head feedlot, and in 2020 built an addition to get to 2,000 head. They farm about 2,500 acres. In addition, they rent and own pasture in several North Dakota counties. They have two full-time employees at the feedlot. Tyler owns Elston Trucking, which hauls distiller’s grains. (A brother, separately has a cattle trucking business.)
David Buskohl, who runs up to 7,000-head in a sheep feedlot at Wyndmere and up to a three-unit trucking company, approached Elston to offer sunflower screenings for sale. The price of the sunflower screenings was $40 per ton — about half or a third of what corn screenings would have been at that time.
“It tested good for (feed) protein,” Elston said. “It just worked to add that into the ration.”
Over the past three years, he’d received roughly 75 loads.
“I don’t know if they (Palmer amaranth seeds) were in ’em all or not,” he said.
Elston said he’s always assumed screenings had some weed seeds in them.
“I wouldn’t expect to have a noxious weed, that they knew was in there," he said.
In 2020, excessive spring moisture meant the Elstons and many of their neighbors didn’t get many of their crop acres planted. In late August, an agronomist from the nearby Gavilon elevator at Rogers, N.D., came by and checked a field for corn borers.
The agronomists were surprised to see Palmer amaranth growing in a corn and soybean field Tyler had grazed cattle over the prior winter. He’d spread manure from the feedlot and then planted beans and corn.
The consultants contacted North Dakota State University Extension Weed Specialist Joe Ikley. Ikley scrambled a group of officials to Elston’s field on Sept. 8, 2020. The group included Richard Weisz, noxious weeds specialist for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture; Barnes County Weed Officer James Windish and his summer crew; Ron Manson, Stutsman County weed control officer; and Brian Jenks, an NDSU weed scientist at the North Central Research Extension Center in Minot came down. Just days before, Jenks had been to Stutsman County, next door, for another outbreak, from the same source. (The town of Spiritwood is in Stutsman County but the Elston headquarters is in Barnes County.)
Windish, who started his work for Barnes County at Valley City in 2016, said he’d always figured Palmer would show up, but expected a “few dozen to a couple hundred plants.”
Ikley and Jenks identified Palmer amaranth along paths where the cattle walked.
“You could see the trails of Palmer where the cattle walked,” Windish said.
“They estimated probably a million,” Windish said, of the number of plants in the Elston outbreak. “It was kind of all over.”
One problem with Palmer seeds is that they emerge all year long — not in a single flush as some weeds do.
“It varied from ones that were 2 inches to 12 feet,” Windish said.
Elston was stunned.
“They said it was the worst they’d ever seen,” Elston said, his lips tightening.
Ikley took screening samples to a laboratory in Fargo. The genetics lab did 10 separate counts and came up with 999 Palmer seeds per pound to 1,707 per pound — more than 400 times the legal limit. Some of the samples contained “volunteer sorghum,” meaning it likely originated in states to the south. Among the viable seeds, he later learned that some of the Palmer population is resistant to atrazine herbicide, a common herbicide to control weeds in corn.
Elston harvested his crop and put it in a bin.
Minnesota declared Palmer amaranth a noxious weed in 2014 and the first confirmed Minnesota cases were in 2016. North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring declared Palmer a noxious weed in January 2019. South Dakota declared it a prohibited noxious weed as of Sept. 2, 2019.
In North Dakota, any authority over sunflower screenings is in the feed law — not weed or seed law — in North Dakota Century Code. That's “flustrating,” because the feed law exempts "screenings from the commercial feed law,” he said. Everybody knows it can include weed seeds, including noxious weed seeds.
“The only time we can regulate, oversee or monitor them is when there’s a complaint,” he said.
The limit for noxious weeds in sunflower screenings is technically 4.5 seeds per pound — effectively five or more of any “restricted seeds per pound" can be “deemed adulterated and has to be destroyed,” Goehring said.
In October 2018, Minnesota consulted with Brian Jenks, an NDSU weed control specialist at Minot, N.D., who discussed a Palmer situation on a Richland County farm, involving cattle fed sunflower screenings suspected of coming from Red River Commodities. Jenks, who is not a regulator, passed this information to Richard Weisz, at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.
After investigation and back-and-forth with the company, Minnesota issued its cease and desist order, preventing Red River Commodities from moving into the state.
In the Elston/Barnes County case, the trucker didn’t violate any rule, he said, because they said they didn't know the screenings had Palmer in it. Red River Commodities may not have done anything wrong, because they may not have known the trucking company was selling the screenings and that the trucking company had passed along a printout of a general warning about feeding screenings.
Landowners are responsible for their own control of noxious weeds, he said. It’s “buyer beware” on the screenings.
Palmer has many ways to get into the state — equipment, forages, other screening suppliers. Weed control officers sometimes fail to clamp down on livestock operators who want to buy cheap feed, regardless of the risks. (No one has filed a weed complaint against Elston, according to Barnes County Weed Board Chairman Lloyd Wieland.)
Goehring said that Minnesota has plenty of Palmer amaranth in the southern part of the state. Minnesota's handling of Red River Commodities — an out-of-state company — is “a bit more grandstanding than anything else.”
A ‘plan in place’
After Minnesota reports of Palmer in Red River Commodities' sunflower screenings, Goehring in April 2019 personally called Bob Majkrzak, the company’s long-time president and chief executive officer. Majkrzak, since retired, told him there was some kind of “plan in place” destroy any screenings they found with Palmer in it.
Goehring called him again in June 2019.
Goehring acknowledges he took no notes on either conversation, and there was no follow-up or email to summarize. He said he has a high volume of calls on numerous topics. He did not know how the company would test, or whether they did. Genetic tests for the weed are $75 each.
On April 11, 2019, in a Minnesota Department of Agriculture email, supplied through a "data transfer" request in Barnes County, Denise Thiede, the Minnesota department’s section manager for the seed, noxious weed, hemp and biotechnology program, wrote she’d talked with Mike Kotzbacher, then a senior vice president at Red River Commodities. She got a different message than Goehring remembers.
“Mike told me that this was old news,” Thiede wrote, of the Palmer in sunflower screenings issue. “He said that Red River Commodities had been in touch with Doug Gehring (sic. Goehring) and John Sandbakken, at the National Sunflower Association about this issue.
“He said the contaminated screenings came out of Kansas where Palmer amaranth is widely distributed. He told me that they receive grain from sunflowers produced from the Canadian border down to the Mexico border with Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas having the highest grain productions.
“He said they are not planning to do anything differently. Like all grain handlers, they get product in, clean it, and the screenings are byproducts with minimal value that they get rid (of) for minimal return. They are not doing anything different (than) corn or soybean grain handlers.
“He questioned the source of contamination and how we could tie the screenings to Red River Commodities."
On May 11, 2019, Thiede related a conversation with NDSU's Jenks, from Minot, quoting Jenks: “It will be mind boggling to me that we put Palmer on the noxious weed list, mandate that farmers have to control Palmer, and then just allow a company (Red River Commodities) to knowingly spread Palmer through screenings. This is wrong.”
Days after Minnesota issued its cease and desist against the company the North Dakota Ag Department put out its own “buyer beware” statement to sunflower screenings clients about “high-risk” of noxious weed seeds in “screenings.” (The statement mentioned neither Palmer amaranth nor Red River Commodities.)
Elston's trucker, Buskohl said he knew about the printed statements. He claimed to have handed them out to feed customers for “six months” after the notice came out. Elston said he never received one.
Later, Goehring acknowledged he didn’t know what Red River Commodities was doing differently.
“It’s not understood in these days, but a gentlemen’s agreement …” Goehring began, and then paused “... maybe I made the wrong assumption, when they tell me they’re monitoring the product in their facility, I assume they’re testing” the product.
Goehring said the trucker initially told Tom Bodine, Goehring’s deputy commissioner, he never knew the product might have been “adulterated” with Palmer. Goehring acknowledges he has no records that show any loads of screenings were destroyed through incineration at an ADM plant in Enderlin or sent to a landfill.
Kotzbacher of Red River Commodities, in a Sept. 21, 2020, email, told Charles Elhard, a North Dakota Ag Department plant protection officer, that some screenings went to an ADM facility in Enderlin, N.D., in prior years.
Kotzbacher told Elhard he didn’t know how many “rejected” screenings had gone to ADM for “destruction” in an incinerator and had no records of it.
“We are keeping track now and will have those records available in the future,” Kotzbacher said.
Elston said he received 75 truckloads over the three years, noting each one averaged 20 tons to 25 tons each — a total of 1,500 tons.
Of the 1,000 acres where the screenings went in 2020, much of it had been on land in prevented planting.
In the spring of 2020, Elston was in a time bind. Typically, he’d pile manure and let it “bake down,” as compost, which can kill some weed seeds that survive the ruminant system. But since he had “prevent-plant ground close,” to the feedlot, he immediately spread it.
“That’s where it really flourished — in ‘fresh’ spreading,” Elston said.
After the infestation was discovered, Elston harvested the crop.
The state hasn’t extended extra help, financially, to get the Elston situation under control. The county offers state-supported help only on pasture, treebelts or field borders. If it's in a field, there's no cost-share on a growing crop, according to Windish in Barnes County.
After his infestation was confirmed, Elston phoned Buskohl to ask if he knew there was Palmer in the screenings. Buskohl told him “every load of screenings has ‘pigweed,’” which is a non-noxious relative of Palmer.
Elston wonders why — if the state knew they might be tainted with Palmer — the screenings weren’t “destroyed immediately.” He wonders if screenings that couldn’t be sent to Minnesota were sent to North Dakota. He hasn’t filed a lawsuit or threatened one.
“If the state wasn’t going to do anything in ‘18, how am I going to get anything out of him?” he said.
Buskohl is unrattled. Besides his trucking company, he operates a feedlot that holds up to 7,000 head of lambs.
Asked whether he thinks Palmer amaranth should be treated differently than any other weed threat, Buskohl said, “I would think all noxious weeds should be treated the same — spurge, waterhemp, or anything. I’m not a farmer. I’m not an agronomist. I don’t know what the obnoxious weeds are.”
Asked whether he was still delivering sunflower screenings to livestock producers, Buskhohl said he only was delivering the screenings to himself and the ADM plant in Enderlin for incineration.
Red River Commodities
Red River Commodities is one of the most visible sunflower processors in the state, awarded for exports and innovation. Facilities are west of I-29 in north Fargo, specializing mainly in confectionary sunflower seeds, in-shell and kernels. The company has 360 employees in four locations.
It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the publicly traded Amsterdam Commodities N.V. (Acomo), based in Rotterdam, Netherlands. It specializes in confectionery sunflower seeds — in-shell and kernels — with markets in snack, retail and retail chains that sell wild bird food products. Its subsidiary SunGold Foods roasts, salts and flavors sunflower, soybean and other specialty products.
Red River Commodities was started in 1973 by Todd Gunkelman, a member of one of the region’s pioneering sunflower families. In the late 1970s, Gunkelman entered the hybrid seed planting business and obtained investment from NV Deli Maattschappij, (the “Deli Group”), in a number of industries including spice and tobacco trade.
In 1981, Deli Group acquired 80% of the shares and in 1983 bought the rest. In 1986, the company merged into Universal Corp. In 2010, Amsterdam Commodities purchased the tea and seeds groups from Deli Group.
R.A. “Bob” Majkrzak, a Thompson, N.D., native, was the president and chief executive of Red River Commodities. Majkrzak joined the company in 1985, became president in 1989. The company announced he was retiring Aug. 1, 2019. Christianson, who had been the company’s chief financial officer and senior vice president since 2017, succeeded him.
Lloyd Wieland, a lifelong farmer at Valley City, has been on the five-person Barnes County weed board for more than 20 years. He’s in his second term as chairman. Weiland, highly concerned about Palmer, sought Minnesota Department of Agriculture documents of concerns about Red River Commodities.
Minnesota provided documentation of relevant correspondence between the states, dating back to 2018. Minnesota had confirmed Palmer seeds in screenings shipped to a Vesta, Minn., cattle feeder in 2019 and 2020.
Even though Kotzbacher, with Red River Commodities, told Thiede the contaminated screenings was “old news,” Elston said it was not "old news" to him. And it's bad news.
“A few local elevators have said that if there’s too much Palmer in there (in his 2020 crops), they’re not going to dump (accept) it,” Elston said.
He acknowledges if it was fed to cattle and then the manure was spread, it could also spread the weeds. That limits the uses for the existing crop and also limits what he can do on his land going forward.
Elston’s 1,000 acres will require weekly monitoring and timely spraying.
Elston has rented 15 acres of the “worst spot” to Ikley at NDSU for more intense monitoring and control research. They’re planting corn, soybeans and edible beans on the location.
“It’s more of a chemical test,” he said. Ikley assured Elston he’d be at the Elston site twice a week through the growing season.
Elston spends $40 an acre spraying weeds. He thinks the Palmer will add an additional $30 per acre.
On 1,000 acres.
“Forever,” he said, although weed scientists aren't quite that pessimistic.
The county has an annual budget of over $300,000 for weed control. Much of that comes from local taxpayers. In recent years, they’ve gotten up to $13,000 from the state Landowner Assistance Program funds to fight noxious weeds, most of which will be used on non-cropped land. The Legislature has provided $1 million for the program per biennium, statewide and each county gets a share. They get another $5,000 for the Target Assistance Grant program. They picked up a one-time $25,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for noxious weeds in tree-related areas.
Elston has traditionally has been a strong supporter of the North Dakota Department of Agriculture. Goehring prides himself as a champion of livestock producers. Elston agreed the department’s programs helped him with engineering costs on his feedlot expansion.
“But they did drop the ball on the Palmer issue, terribly,” he said. “When Minnesota stopped letting them in, they should have done something right away.”
Winds that blew 50 mph near Spiritwood in mid-April surely blew it to the south, across nearby Eckelson Lake. NDSU's Ikely acknowledged "dust devils" can move things around.
“Anything that was here is going to be across the lake, and from there it’s going to just keep going.”
Elston is sure it will significantly cut the value of his land.
“I wouldn’t want to buy it," he said. "You knock a person’s balance sheet in half.”