Where do you cut when you have to cut costs?

As crop prices drop, growers have a new focus on cost containment. Weed control is always a big bill, so it’s only natural this gets a hard look — but taking the wrong steps could cost you money

High crop prices always make the decision to apply crop protection products relatively easy.

Just a few years ago, when canola was north of $700 per tonne and wheat was sitting near $500 per tonne, the question was never “Should I spray?” it was “Why wouldn’t I spray?”

After all, at those prices if you could save just a bushel or two of yield, it was money in the bank. With today’s lower prices, cost containment becomes a serious question. It’s not all about raw bushels anymore, but rather about how to find the sweet spot of producing cost-effective bushels. Pencils are being sharpened, and every expenditure is going under the microscope.

Should you be reviewing your weed control budget? It’s probably not a bad idea, but don’t make wholesale changes without carefully considering all the impacts it could have on your operation.

Clark Brenzil is the Saskatchewan agriculture ministry’s weed control specialist, and he says growers need to be aware of all the potential unintended consequences, because the stakes are pretty high.

“Weed competition is one of the primary areas of concern where we have ‘leakage’ of yield with crops,” Brenzil says. “They are the primary pest of field crops.”

Other pests, like diseases and insects, for example, won’t necessarily overwinter here or occur every season. They take time to arrive during the growing season, if they arrive at all. They’re climate dependent and frequently won’t appear if the conditions don’t line up right. The lower disease pressure this past growing season due to drier-than-normal conditions is a good demonstration of this. By contrast, give weeds a hot season and the hot-season weeds will thrive. A cooler season will correspondingly see the cooler-season weeds run wild.

It all favours a “proceed with caution” approach, Brenzil says, because there are some reasonable strategies that may yield intended results, but some ideas should be best avoided at all costs.

Decision models

One approach is the economic threshold model, where applications are only made if there’s an economic case. If you get good crop establishment early in the season and the weed pressure simply isn’t there, a case might be made for minimizing costs by skipping an application.

“This is a tool for a straight yes-no decision,” Brenzil says. “You either choose to spray or not, based on what you’re seeing in the field.”

He does caution that before deciding not to spray, growers need to be aware any weeds that are in the field will set seed that will be returned to the seed bank, which could add to pressure in subsequent seasons.

Jeanette Gaultier, Brenzil’s counterpart in the Manitoba agriculture department, agrees the strategy could get a second look this season, and stresses that success with it will depend on good crop scouting. Only by really knowing what’s in the field will there be a basis for good decision making.

“I think a lot of farmers in the past few seasons have just had their program — ‘this is the pre-seed burnoff, then I’ll use this in-season,’ and they’d just go ahead and apply it,” Gaultier says. “Lower crop prices could have them taking a second look, but I think it’ll be on a field-by-field basis.”

She echoes Brenzil’s words of caution about taking a long-term view of weed control and making cost-containment decisions with an eye to the long-term effects.

“Some of these strategies might save you a few dollars in the short term, but they can have pretty horrendous long-term costs,” Gaultier says.

Don’t cut rates

One approach that both Brenzil and Gaultier say that growers should stay away from at all costs is cutting herbicide rates. It’s a strategy that’s been popular in the past. As recently as 2005, grower surveys were showing that up to 40 per cent of farmers had used the technique.

“I think there are better approaches than cutting rates,” Brenzil says. “Cutting rates has a number of dangers, including the risk of selecting for herbicide-resistant weeds more quickly.”

Gaultier agrees, adding it is also false economy because farmers would be putting out dollars and sacrificing time to apply a product at a rate with questionable efficacy.

“If you’re going to go to that trouble, you might as well spend the few extra dollars and make sure you get control,” Gaultier says.

A better strategy might be to look more closely at the chemical control options you’re selecting, Brenzil says. Increasingly there are lower-cost generic or off- patent options available in almost every major class of crop protection chemistry. They may vary a bit with formulation and you’ll need to be aware of that and how it might affect performance, but there may be a lower cost option available for you that will work just fine.

“In our guide to crop protection, for example, there are about 240 individual products, but only about 60 active ingredients,” Brenzil says.

He adds that generic options frequently come with less service and insurance in the form of product guarantees, which growers might want to consider when making selection decisions.

Maintain tank mixing

Gaultier also cautions against choosing control products on cost alone, rather than balancing efficacy. She is particularly concerned that growers might turn their back on the practice of tank mixing, which not only gives better control, it also forestalls the development of resistant weeds by applying multiple modes of action simultaneously.

“I especially wouldn’t like to see growers foregoing tank mixing glyphosate,” she says. “We absolutely must protect glyphosate.”

Gaultier also says, counterintuitively, using slightly more expensive products like older soil-applied residual chemicals may pay dividends as well.

“It’s a bit more expensive up front, but it does give you that residual control which will, over time, give you lower weed seed levels,” she says. She also notes it’s another tool in the fight against herbicide resistance.

One strategy growers should incorporate, regardless of good times or bad, is an integrated weed management approach that also relies on cultural practices. Over time it will not only control weeds better, it should also lower crop protection costs.

“If you look at a field and you see a problem, this might be an opportunity to clean it up a bit with things like seeding dates and rates, and selecting a more competitive crop,” she says. “For example, peas are shining pretty brightly right now relative to other crops, and while there aren’t a lot of chemical control options, once you get them started they’re quite a competitive crop.”

Gaultier notes that tillage is an option too, though a controversial one. It doesn’t mean bringing back the plow for the whole farm, but judicious tillage in problem areas is an option. Some weed researchers recommend it, while soil scientists always cringe a bit at the damage it might do to soils.

“You could definitely have a coffee shop debate over this one,” Gaultier says.

This article was originally published as “Can you cut costs?” in the February 16, 2016 issue of Country Guide.

About the author

Gord Gilmour's recent articles

explore

Stories from our other publications

Comments