Category Archives: super weeds

3 Picks: Canadian Surplus, UK Surplus, Amaranth Superweed

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Canadian Prairie Crops Bursting at the seams this Season: By Jennifer Graham. “the highest all-wheat yield in the last 10 years was about 42 bushels per acre and this year it is expected to be about 49 bushels per acre. … Mr. Townsend said estimates are that the six major grains in Western Canada – wheat, oats, barley, rye, flax and canola – could produce 61.4 million tonnes this year. The previous nine-year average was about 47.7 million tonnes…”

2) Surplus Grains in the UK: “It is not just milling wheat which the UK (unlike most other countries) faces a surplus of. In oats too, the country has an unusually large surplus which is confronting farmers, and traders, with what Robert Leachman, oats trader at Gleadell, says is a ‘serious situation’ on how to find homes for the grain…”

3) Palmer Amaranth Super-weeds: By Kurt Lawton. “Before you run that combine through every acre of your fields, I’d highly recommend reading “Resistant Palmer amaranth hits the Midwest.” This weed is a game changer, and if left unchecked without multiple herbicide modes of control, you can literally lose a field in three years’ time.”

BONUS: Carole King — A Natural Woman’s Idaho property is for sale. (Photo above.)

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

Is Mechanical Flame Weeding for Crops Growing in Popularity?

Flame weeding using propane is a USDA approved organic weed removal method. It affords an opportunity for organic farmers to save time and money in their weed removal efforts. Furthermore, propane prices are currently reasonable, as shown by the following ten-year price graph.

There are a wide range of human and tractor powered flame-weeder models, many hand-built by the farmer. Individual propane tanks with hand held wands are quite common, as are human powered push carts which can be wider and span rows.

The flame weeder is used for pre-emergent and post-emergent weeding. It is particularly useful for small crops which are slow to germinate, like carrots and onions. Since it avoids cultivation, it is a no-till method of weed control.

Red Dragon is one company which has designed commercial equipment for industrial thermal weeding. This method uses an average of five gallons of propane per acre, or about half the cost of herbicide application.

Row crop flame weeding was used back in the 1930s, using kerosene. Research using the method has been done on 30 to 40 different crops, with good results. The goal is to rupture the weed plant cell walls, something that can be accomplished in one-tenth of a second with exposure to flame. The gas pressure and ground speed are used to control the heat exposure. It is most successful in use against small broadleaf weeds two-inches tall or at the 3-leaf stage. It works well on morning glories or bindweed. Flame weed control is less successful on grasses and perennial weeds. If necessary, repeat flaming three to five days apart is better than a one time heavy flaming.

The University of Nebraska is undergoing testing using mechanical flamers, and is hinting at a possible growing interest among conventional crop producers due to RoundUp weed resistance. They are working with manufacturers to make four-, six-, eight-, 10- and 12-row units.

Safety is important when using flame weed control. The method should be used on a dry day, but not in extreme dry conditions.

You may also want to check out this video of a tractor mounted flame weeder working a field of carrots.

An Evaluation of Benbrook’s Pesticide Use Study and Evolving Super Weeds

The study, “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years” by Charles M Benbrook of Washington State University was published September 28th in peer reviewed “Environmental Sciences Europe 2012″. Reuters covered the report in this article: “Pesticide use ramping up as GMO crop technology backfires”. “Yes on 37 For Your Right to Know” advocates followed by publishing a press release titled “Damning New Study: GMOs Cause Massive Overuse of Pesticides; Data Sheds Light on Why Pesticide Companies Lead Opposition to Prop 37″.

The purpose of this post is to sort through the study’s strengths and weaknesses.

For background, Roundup ready soybeans were introduced in 1996 as the first HR (herbicide-resistant) crop. In 2011, an estimated 94% of the soybean area planted, 72% of corn, and 96% of cotton were planted to HR varieties, while about 65% of corn and 75% of cotton in the U.S. were planted to Bt varieties. See charts (below).

USDA Graph Showing Adoption of Genetically Engineered Seeds from 1996 through 2011 for Soybeans, Cotton, and Corn

Biotech Share of U.S. Corn Acres in 2011

Benbrook’s study looks credible in the reporting of pesticide use, but he never took into account crop yields in his results. It reports that between 1996 and 2011, herbicide use has increased while insecticide use decreased for a net gain in pesticide use of 404 million pounds, or about seven percent. Pesticide use is reported per acre, but the amount used per bushel of yield is ignored by the study.

The conclusion of the study is this:

Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied. If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%. The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

I’d like to first comment on his results and conclusion (above).

1. Within the report, Benbrook appropriately cites the application of herbicides per acre. But telling us how many pounds gain in use of pesticides since the introduction of HR crops were introduced in 1996 falls short by not taking into consideration crop yields.

2. In Benbrook’s conclusion, he shows that GE crops have led to a larger use of pesticides when we were promised they would use less, especially since pesticide resistance has evolved. The claim that I am more familiar with is that glyphosate is a less toxic chemical than those herbicides used previously. After-all, HR seed technology, by definition, requires application of the herbicide glyphosate. Additionally, when I did average yield calculations (below) for corn and soybeans, results suggested that the time period of Benbrook’s 16-year study did use fewer pesticides when yield was taken into account.

3. The main point of Benbrook’s conclusion is that glyphosate-resistant weeds will require an increase in pesticide use. An obvious exception to this would be the increased hand-removal of weeds from fields which is already happening. Today’s growing weed and pest resistance to pesticides is causing a return to the use of the original and more toxic chemicals such as 2,4-D and the promotion of GE seeds with more stacked traits and higher concentrations of Bt. This is of great concern to everyone and he does a good job covering this emerging story. Weed-resistance has huge implications and it has been in the news repeatedly over the past several years, so in that sense this study presents nothing new. There are many unknowns surrounding future crop production and crop production methods as a result of pesticide resistance and his overview of today’s situation towards the end of the study is worth reading.

In his study, this paragraph tells us that pesticide use is increasing with each passing year of GE crop use:

Taking into account applications of all pesticides targeted by the traits embedded in the three major GE crops, pesticide use in the U.S. was reduced in each of the first six years of commercial use (1996–2001). But in 2002, herbicide use on HR soybeans increased 8.6 million kgs (19 million pounds), driven by a 0.2 kgs/ha (0.18 pounds/acre), increase in the glyphosate rate per crop year, a 21% increase. Overall in 2002, GE traits increased pesticide use by 6.9 million kgs (15.2 million pounds), or by about 5%. Incrementally greater annual increases in the kilograms/pounds of herbicides applied to HR hectares have continued nearly every year since, leading to progressively larger annual increases in overall pesticide use on GE hectares/acres compared to non-GE hectares/acres. The increase just in 2011 was 35.3 million kgs (77.9 million pounds), a quantity exceeding by a wide margin the cumulative, total 14 million kg (31 million pound) reduction from 1996 through 2002.

The above paragraph suggests that with increased HR crop acres, there is a corresponding increase in the use of glyphosate. That would certainly be expected, would it not? Most resistant weeds weren’t documented until 3-4 years after 2002, so I find his mixing of these figures and timeline confusing. It would have been valuable if the study had included a timeline of the rate of adoption for each GE crop for a baseline of comparison to pesticide use. (See weed reference list link)

Taking into Account Crop Yields
Using this USDA chart as my reference, I averaged the corn yield per bushel for the 16 years leading up to 1996, and compared that yield to the yield during the 16 years of Benbrook’s study, 1996 through 2011. From 1980 through 1996, I came up with an average yield of 110 bushels of corn per acre. From 1997 through 2011, the average yield was 143 bushels of corn per acre, a 30 percent increase. A few variables worth mentioning that are not taken into account are weather, an increase in irrigation, advancements in machinery, and the rate of adoption of HR varieties of corn by year. Yet, one can see that the yield increase is far greater than the seven percent of Benbrook’s reported increase in pesticide use during this study’s sixteen-year time period.

Doing the same exercise for soybeans and using a yield chart from Iowa State, from 1980 through 1996 the average U.S. soybean yield was 30 bushels per acre. From 1997 through 2011 the average yield was 40 bushels per acre. This is a 33 percent increase during the time period of Benbrook’s study, again, clearly well-above the seven percent increase in pesticide application that he cites in the results of his study.

Resistant Weeds
This chart from lists the 24 glyphosate-resistant weeds, when they were first seen, and which states they inhabit. Perhaps two of the worst problems right now are the glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth in cotton and Bt resistant western corn rootworm. Last year, 500,000 cotton acres in Georgia were weeded by hand for pigweed (Palmer amaranth). On a personal note, my own family had to hoe marestail out of soybean fields this year on our farm in Northeast Nebraska. Glyphosate resistant weeds are becoming ubiquitous across U.S. corn, soybean, and cotton cropland — spanning millions of acres.

Deere Boom Sprayers can span 100 feet or more

Overuse and unregulated management of crops using glyphosate and Bt genetically modified technology has greatly contributed to these emerging resistant weeds and pests. Mandated ethanol use has driven up corn prices and resulted in unrotated corn on corn acres, where rootworm resistance is seen. An aging farmer demographic along with depopulation of the rural areas are conditions which have embraced the use of genetically modified technology which has saved labor while also enabling operators to work off-farm for income. Custom boom sprayers spanning 100-feet or more have done the work of weed-removal. Aerial spraying of pesticides continues to be widely used. The no-till which is practiced by using Roundup saves fuel costs and labor.

When one puts all of these facts together it is worth wondering whether we are nearing the end of the easy years of crop production in the U.S., the end of industrial agriculture as we know it. Will there be a decrease in crop yields? Could this kill the biofuels programs? Will farms need to become smaller again so that farmers can manage weeds? Will teenagers (or migrant laborers) be employed by roguing corn and bean fields? So far, Monsanto has not been very informative about its outlook concerning this issue. In Ag decision-making, in the end, it always comes down to economic viability and policy. At least for the short term, it looks as if more expensive and more hazardous chemical inputs will continue to increase in use for corn, soybeans, and cotton because of pesticide resistance which is growing at an alarming rate.

A September Trip Through Nebraska in Drought Year 2012

Sunset on Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

From My Ántonia: “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

One night of my recent trip through Nebraska was spent in Red Cloud, where Willa Cather grew up. While there, I spent time reading the writing of those who first settled this region. Back then, it was the land of new opportunity for overcrowded Europeans who could no longer make a living in Europe. It was man against nature for these new settlers, and unless man conquered the land, there would be no living to be made. It didn’t take long, however, for the White Man to drive out the Red Man, to kill the bison and the passenger pigeon, and to plow up the prairie sod for crop cultivation.

While some saw and others still see the prairie as nothingness, Cather said after moving from Virginia at age nine, “So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.” She and her contemporaries didn’t know what nature-deficit-disorder was. They grew up wading in creeks, playing with frogs, running from snakes, and herding cattle.

Though seldom noted, Cather’s writings (I have read most of them) are interspersed with her concerns for conservation. Like Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Robinson Jeffers, her thinking was far ahead of her time. She criticizes the draining of marshes for crop profit, as one example.

Downtown Red Cloud in 2012

Interestingly, today the town of Red Cloud at population 1,000 is about half the size that it was in 1890. Cather lived there during its most vibrant time.

Corn at railroad grain terminal near Central City

Fast forward to today and we have conquered Cather’s land. The most productive Nebraska farmland is now a giant industrial operation devoid of most life save for corn, soybeans, and cattle.

I always try to note what is changing in the state that I grew up in and spent most of my life in when I visit. One observation this year is that there is more irrigation everywhere. The county that I grew up in is not in Ogallala Aquifer country, yet irrigation pivots now surround my family’s farm. One was installed just last month. My family is worried because their own well will probably run dry eventually, as a result. High corn prices drive more irrigation installations.

Pile of bulldozed trees from a low-lying area in northeast Nebraska to make way for more cropland.

Ethanol policy and resulting high corn prices cause marginal land to be farmed. Corn is being grown between railroad tracks and highways. Piles of dead trees lay in fields which have been removed from low-lying pastures and waterways, to grow crops. Fences have been removed from fields to gain another row or two on the edges, and besides, if you don’t rotate the cattle through, you don’t need the fences. In one location, some very steep hillside pasture which had never been farmed before became a cornfield this year. There isn’t much CRP (conservation reserve program) land to be seen as compared to five years ago. Fields are ever-larger than the year before and there are always fewer farm places, something I’ve noted for decades.

DDGS by-product being spit out from the ADM Ethanol Plant in Columbus

I can’t drive by Columbus, Nebraska without turning in to see what’s going on at the second largest ethanol facility in the U.S. This wet and dry mill ADM ethanol plant was built a few years ago as a coal-fired co-generation plant which burns high and low sulfur coals, tire derived fuel, and biomass such as trees to produce steam and electric energy. Last year when I visited, I saw through clouds of dust, trucks filled with corn lined up more than twenty deep to deliver Ogallala Aquifer irrigated corn for distillation into ethanol at this plant. This year, there were only a couple of trucks delivering corn and the main activity seemed to be the DDGS production pictured in the above photograph.

These rural farming regions grow more dependent upon fossil-fuels each passing year. Farmers and their spouses work in off-farm jobs, often an hour’s drive from home. Little towns such as Oakland are now referred to as “bedroom communities” for Omaha, which is seventy miles away. The small towns are often food deserts and many farms don’t have gardens, either. The nearest Walmart provides groceries and about everything else. The farming operations rely upon diesel, fossil-fuel derived fertilizers, and chemicals, as do the roads, infrastructure, and trucks which move the commodities. It’s all about fuel and machinery substitution for human labor in industrial farm country. What it’s not about is aesthetics.

The entire region looked horribly dry and the trees were suffering, like those you might see in West Texas. Alfalfa is a drought tolerant crop so fields of it are bright green, as compared to everything else. Though alfalfa quality has been good, the quantity was very low this drought year. Nebraska fared about the worst of all of the states in drought and heat conditions this year. My family farm has received about 65 percent of normal rainfall to date and had a corn yield of 43 bushels per acre. In agreement with other comments I’ve been seeing online, it was a mystery to this area’s farmers as to why yields were higher in one place, and lower in another, sometimes within the same field.

Glyphosate resistant marestail growing in soybeans on my family farm

Undermining industrial agriculture a huge problem is creeping up — superweeds. I witnessed it first hand in the above photograph. My family had problems with marestail in the soybeans this summer and had to hand-cultivate. Nature always wins.

Now, I will close this post with a final Cather quote from O Pioneers, which seems relevant for our time and for this summer of extreme drought and heat in Nebraska. “The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other.”