Conservation-Who Would Have Thought? By: Kevin Williams, Grundy County Conservation Director
July 25, 2014
My neighbor sprayed his beans a couple of weeks ago and shortly thereafter I noticed the brown cast that appeared on the leaves uniformly across the field. My wife asked what was wrong with those beans. “Well, I haven’t heard of any fungus or insect causing something like that this early” I told her. “But I did see the sprayer out there just a couple days ago”. “Do you suppose that they sprayed the wrong stuff? she asked. Could be – but unlikely I thought. So, the next day, I asked Nick at work. Nick is my source for modern ag questions as he farms on the side. My life experiences growing up on a small farm 40 years ago don’t include many of the common practices of today. He told me that it was a herbicide that many farmers were using to help get the weeds that the “plain old garden variety” of Roundup wasn’t killing anymore. OK, those were my words not his, but that was the gist of it. What was being added to get the resistant weeds was what was browning the leaves on the soybeans. In a very simplistic view, it reminded me of chemotherapy where the only course of treatment for the cancer is to damage the healthy cells along with the bad ones. The trick is to kill the disease without killing the patient. I found an article that the Des Moines Sunday Register published recently relating that some weeds are now showing resistance to glyphosate – the generic name for Monsanto's broad spectrum weed control chemical, Roundup. Many of our most important crops have now been bred to tolerate Roundup through the marvel of genetic engineering. “Roundup Ready” crops allow farmers to spray right over the crops and eliminate all weeds without further disturbing the soil through cultivation. That saves time, money, and helps prevent soil compaction and erosion. Those are all very good things. Although Monsanto claimed that weed resistance to the chemical was unlikely ever to happen, it has. That’s the bad thing. I found in searching things that many scientists disagreed and said weed resistance was inevitable as “Roundup Ready” crops virtually replaced older genetic lines. It really stands to reason in my mind. Roundup became the one-pass weed control of choice in only a few years and is now being applied to the vast majority of acres in production every year, whether the crop is corn, beans, or several others. This is a wonderfully created world where adaptation is built into the genes. Most weeds develop only one generation each year, so it takes a while to develop and pass on resistance. We as human beings have shown the ability to develop resistance to certain diseases - but it takes many generations. Before I raise the hackles on some necks out there, don’t think that climbing a soapbox for abandoning the use of herbicides like Roundup. The old methods of weed control that Dad practiced on our little farm were time consuming and impractical by many standards today. Cultivating with the Oliver 66 (without an umbrella) was time consuming and hot. But although it was time consuming, it was something weeds could never develop resistance to. Oh, if you pushed it over and you didn’t cut or bury it, some weeds would continue to grow horizontally for a time and then push skyward again. Timing and the right equipment was important in order to do the most damage to specifically targeted weeds and least damage to crops and soil. Some weeds were better attacked in spring and others in the fall. Crop rotations were still important as a means of breaking weed and disease cycles. No field had the same crop on it two years in a row. And with our cattle operation, hay interrupted the row crop cycle for at least 3 years. The dense growth of a forage crop like clover or alfalfa could smother some weeds or at least keep their spread in check. I can remember particularly bad weed problems where Dad “fallowed”, a process where we disced the area for as much as a year where weeds germinated and were then worked to allow as many weed seeds as possible to be eliminated. Can you imagine anyone deliberately leaving a field or even a portion of one in fallowed condition today short of flooded conditions dictating it? Modern agriculture is a complex activity. And there's no question that our father’s farming is not today’s. But lessons from the past are worth remembering. One of them is the benefit of diversity. They used diverse techniques to manage problems rather than having all the eggs in one basket. Diversity gave them the best chance of weathering economic and climate challenges, too. Even on a native prairie, we see that diversity allows a prairie plant community with over 200 species to better sustain itself when stressed by climate, diseases, or insects than a plant community that has only two crops that are grown in much the same way on millions of acres. I don’t have all the answers. But diversity is the foundation of nature's health plan, and shouldn’t be abandoned as man moves forward in managing the land.
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