It is Nov. 9 and Thomas “Tommy” Butts, the new Arkansas Extension rice and soybean weed specialist, is standing amid boxes in a west Nebraska apartment. The next day, he would be moving south to Lonoke, Ark., with his wife, Liberty.
With an official start date of Nov. 26, Butts — who is extremely amiable and easy with a laugh — will have a couple of weeks to acclimate. He promises to win over skeptics of a young Midwesterner moving to rice country.
On personal history…
“I’ve been around agriculture my whole life. I’m originally from Wisconsin and grew up around dairy farms my entire childhood. I worked for a neighbor for close to a decade milking cows, doing fieldwork, all of that.
“Throughout that time, I was very active in 4-H and FFA — just loved those programs and doing a lot of things like showing cattle at the fair.
“When it came time for college I knew I’d be studying something agriculture-related. The small school I went to, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, had a major in ag business and I minored in crop and soil science. Again, it was just a wonderful education and a great time.
“Throughout those first four years of study, the ag business side was fine, but I definitely enjoyed the cropping system side more and doing agronomy work. Through a couple of internships, it became obvious I’d rather do something away from the sales side of things. So, I started looking at master’s degree programs and weed science caught my eye — the diversity and dealing with so many crops. At the same time, you’re helping farmers find solutions to, most of the time, pretty troublesome situations.
“I ended up doing my master’s under Dr. Vince Davis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One of the main projects I worked on there was a multi-university study throughout the Midwest and Mid-South looking at control methods on herbicide-resistant pigweeds. We were looking at Palmer amaranth, waterhemp, redroot pigweeds, a bit of everything. We were looking for different management strategies to use in different systems and hopefully control those pests. I also did dose response screenings to identify herbicide resistance in the state.
“From there, I’d been working with Dr. Greg Kruger a bit and had become very interested in application technology. That led me to western Nebraska (North Platte) to work on my PhD with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — mainly on application technology, drift control and how we can play the balancing act between those things and proper weed control.
“A lot of my research was on pulse-width modulation sprayers. That’s where you put solenoid valves on each nozzle and they’re able to control the flow rate by pulsing on and off. That allows more control and precision. I was also looking at using those systems to provide a very specific droplet size in the field to see if droplet size affects our weed control, as well.
“So, that research allowed a lot of work on both the engineering side and also the field-applied weed control side.
“That background led me to a research Extension career — being able to help farmers directly, conduct research that’s applicable and then being able to get that information as quickly as possible so it can be used to control some of these problem weeds.
“In Arkansas, I really want to implement my application technology and interests into control measures in both rice and soybean cropping systems. There are several different precision ag technologies that we can try to implement or investigate. That’s one thing that could really be unique following all the work already done on our agronomic practices and yields.”
“The whole dicamba situation is a strange problem we’re involved in. It’s a splintering problem, obviously, with two sides adamantly for or against it.
“I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Arkansas decisions and what’s been going on in the Mid-South. Obviously, I’ve spoken to the Extension team involved and gotten insight.
“There’s nothing official, but there’s a lot of data left to collect. …One of my beliefs is there’s a huge environmental interaction somewhere we haven’t identified yet that’s causing different products to react differently. Back in Wisconsin, there are situations that have similar dicamba injury patterns like they’ve found in Arkansas.
“In western Nebraska, we’ve had relatively different injury patterns emerge that seemed more associated with tank contamination, off-label applications and things like that. Obviously, that area of the country is very, very different environmentally compared to Arkansas and Wisconsin — less humidity, different temperatures and elevations.
“So, that leads me to wonder if there’s some kind of environmental, climatic factor that’s throwing a wrench into things. We need to keep investigating and find data on how to effectively use dicamba. It’s simply going to be around and will be applied.”
On switching to rice weed work…
“I know I’m the new kid coming in, and it’s understandable that there will be questions about my moving into rice. First off, in preparation, I’ve been doing as much rice research and reading as possible ahead of time. That is absolutely no substitute for learning in the field, of course.
“This spring, I hope to be working with farmers directly and have them show me around, show their operations, all of it. I want to know what they see as the benefits and struggles on a daily basis with rice. What do they think needs to be done with the weed management side of things? Books are great, but there’s nothing like an education from walking fields. I want to be out there with the farmers.
“I’d like to conduct a survey and gather data on the precision ag technology side. What are farmers using? What are they interested in? It would be great to merge the interests and work I’ve done into the rice and soybean sectors. This includes implementing aerial application research. A large portion of applications in rice are made aerially, and finding solutions for growers and applicators to more effectively apply products aerially (from drift, coverage, and weed control perspectives) would be a great benefit moving forward.”
Note: Butts can be emailed at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @weedsARwild.