Last week, I finished writing about the fast progression of herbicides and modes of action in cotton and soybeans up to the mid-1990s and about the commercialization of Roundup Ready crops. Part of my reasons for writing a history of our weed control is to show what we went through to get to Roundup Ready.
In a lot of ways we are currently going backward. While we have a new technology in LibertyLink crops and some new trait technology in the works, out in the field things look more like the mid-1980s or earlier. Many of the herbicides we are supplementing programs with now are from that era.
Thank goodness we have them, because they will help. However, if they had been working that well in their day, Roundup Ready would not have taken the market by storm.
When you attend a field day in the South it is more like one from the 1980s. There may be talks on wiper applicators or cultivation or cover crops for weed control, or post-directed sprayers. The young weed scientists are smarter and better trained, so perhaps they will learn to make some of the older herbicides and technologies work better than I could in the day.
Heck, chopping crews are common now in soybeans and cotton. I can certainly remember them being common in cotton, but not in soybeans. That is back to the earliest method of weed control known. Some act as if hand weeding is okay. Removing some escapes is where we are so we have to do it, but salvage chopping fields is not okay. Backward is the wrong direction!
Roundup Ready changed the face of agriculture more than anything else in my lifetime. All of a sudden weed control went from being the most expensive and most labor-intensive part of producing a crop to the cheapest and least labor-intensive part of producing a crop. That is why smaller farmers who wanted to be bigger farmers suddenly could be.
I have heard people use the expression “it made good farmers out of bad farmers.” I do not use the term “bad farmer” — I love all farmers. However, prior to the introduction of Roundup Ready, weed control was an art and some farmers were better at it than others.
Even with the folks who consistently got the most out of their weed control programs, it was rare to find completely weed-free fields. We had a lot of clean fields by the standard of the day, but not weed-free fields. Almost overnight, Roundup Ready raised the bar to 100 percent weed control and made it available to every farmer. We suddenly went from few fields being weed-free to most of them being weed-free for a 10-year period.
Roundup Ready technology, along some better no-till drills, also took conservation from being an art that some could make work (and most could not), to a technology that all of a sudden would work for everyone. All of these things brought a level of efficiency to farming that few ever dreamed of.
Now I am watching the effectiveness of this miracle technology disappear before my eyes under my watch. In addition to going backward all the way to salvage chopping in some fields, we have weeds sorting farmers again. It is difficult to find weed-free fields again.
This is not only true in the South, but in the Midwest as well. Anyone who thinks this train wreck is strictly a problem for farmers in the South has their head buried in the sand. While the Midwest soybean crop was generally cleaner than ours this summer, I did not see many weed-free fields. I saw the isolated waterhemp plants, the spots, the streaks and the grown up messes just like here.
We are letting organisms with no brain outsmart us. Every individual must decide how far backward we are willing to let this thing go. We have tools in place to turn it around but it will not be easy. The days of easy weed control are over. We have to come to grips with that and get mad at the weeds again. I will go there next.