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The stewardship challenge in farming

With field management getting more complicated, it’s time for a new approach

As the 2020 planting season approaches, growers, advisors, agronomists and industry stakeholders are all hoping for something better than the past two years. Does every year have to have a challenge like 2019’s difficult harvest, or 2018’s run-in with gibberella ear rot (GER) in corn?

If it weren’t for the headaches imposed by weather, a growing season might seem routine. It’s basically planting, scouting, spraying, harvest.

Or so it can seem. But increasingly, even the oldest jobs, like weed control, are getting harder. So although weed management may seem so ordinary, the spectre of increased herbicide resistance is raising the stakes and complicating plans.

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These jobs are also taking much more forethought. Simply waiting for the problem to appear and then reacting is becoming less of a management option, and not just with herbicides but with all chemical products, including fungicides and insecticides.

The term “stewardship strategy” is becoming as familiar as “sustainability” in farming circles, Admittedly, it tends to be linked more to herbicide use than fungicides or insecticides, which might be understandable, given the prevalence of weeds. Growers must manage their impact on a yearly basis, whereas disease and insect infestations can vary in frequency, species or intensity, largely depending on weather conditions during the growing season.

Still, the need for a stewardship strategy is something the industry is recognizing across the chemical products and retail sectors, and much of it surrounds that proactive approach among participants. To Robert Moloney, it’s a matter of preplanning a weed control strategy, subject to change based on the season and the history of a field, instead of reacting to whatever happens during the season.

“Just think about it ahead of time and know that you have ‘Problem X’ in ‘Field Y’ and ‘Problem A’ in ‘Field B,’” says Moloney, sales and agronomist with Boyd’s Farm Supply in Fordwich, Ont. He notes it’s also important to not ignore the fact there are differences between the two fields. “On top of that, a stewardship strategy would mean planning a couple of steps ahead.”

Of course that’s a tall order in a growing season where timelines can become blurred and the challenges that go with planting, spraying and harvest can be frequent and haphazard. Still, there’s a huge advantage for planning in advance, particularly in cases where applying a pre-emerge herbicide is made difficult by an untimely rain and excessive heat. In that case, says Moloney, it’s always best to have an alternate plan.

“It can make a difference, and you don’t want to get into that scenario where you planned to put down the pre-emerge and have the beans come out of the ground,” he adds. “Maybe it’s something you need to control when it’s a half-inch high, and if it’s an inch high, you won’t kill it post-emerge, and you have to be thinking ahead for that.”

Growers who had two or three Canada fleabane plants in 2019 can likely expect many more in 2020.
photo: Supplied

Last year, Dr. Peter Sikkema from the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, said it is still possible to manage weeds effectively and reduce their impact on yield. He was talking about corn at the time and noted the days of single-pass, single-active, “convenient” weed control are gone. Weed management is now more complicated, he said, and will cost growers more money, yet that added expense still pales in comparison to losses in yields and revenues without a decent weed management plan.

That’s why developing a stewardship strategy is time well spent, adds Moloney, even if it requires more time and management. There’s also a regionalism tied to such strategies, where there might be a greater urgency in Essex or Oxford counties where herbicide resistance is expanding, compared to Wellington or Dundas. In his own area, Moloney says there were a few fields in 2018 that would hardly have filled half a garbage bag with Canada fleabane at wheat harvest. In 2019, those same fields were beyond the point where pulling weeds would have had an economic impact.

“It’s certainly changed some of my thinking,” says Moloney. “You need to know —proactively — where things are at. If you had two or three fleabane last year, plan on having a lot more this year. Suddenly, you can have soybeans that are six inches high and fleabane plants that are 12 inches high, and in many cases, you have nothing you can do.”

Change isn’t coming, it’s here

The urgency for developing a strategy is being driven largely by changing weed spectrums in Ontario and Eastern Canada. For several years, Canada fleabane, giant ragweed and common ragweed have been the well-established resistant biotypes. But common waterhemp is now a part of the row-crop environment and has developed resistance to four different herbicide groups in Ontario (in the U.S., it’s as many as seven) and can germinate throughout the growing season.

Another species is Palmer amaranth, which has been entrenched in several counties in Michigan for much of the past decade. Its prolific seed head and the plant’s ability to grow as much as two inches in a day has made it a particular concern.

Although the urgency has been elevated, it’s important to recognize that many growers have been preplanning or enacting some sort of strategy to map and assess the regimens used in weed management (as well as with fungicides and insecticides). They may not be labelling it as a “stewardship strategy”.

“The biggest thing I see with this is that growers who have the most concern with this type of issue usually don’t need to be concerned because they’re doing things right already,” says Moloney. “Before weed resistance became an issue, they weren’t likely to have problems.”

For those who are reluctant to incorporate a stewardship strategy because “it’ll just add to my costs,” Moloney says he can’t do much for them, either.

That doesn’t mean certified crop advisors (CCAs), agronomists or retailers are set to give up on growers. Instead, the reliance on preplanning and stewardship strategies increasingly becomes the job of the advisory sector, something that Steph Kowalski, has noticed in the latter part of the decade.

The landscape is changing, with fewer farmers and larger farms, encompassing everything from fertility plans to planting specifications to in-season applications, pre-harvest, harvest and storage issues. Farmers are relying on more of that “farming as a service” (FaaS) term that’s appearing more frequently and that is provided by agronomists and CCAs. Part of that service is helping create management strategies for chemical products.

“We still need the products we’re applying to do every bit of heavy lifting they possibly can with these difficult-to-control weeds that are creeping their way into Canada,” says Kowalski, a CCA with Brussels Agromart in Brussels, Ont. “New technology certainly comes with new application standards and in a number of regions of Ontario, gone are the days of a simple two-pass glyphosate program resulting in spotless fields.”

Kowalski looks back to the mid-2010s when farmers relied on their advisors and retailers to sift through the requirements for neonicotinoid seed treatments. Oftentimes, she says, growers would simply say, “You’ll take care of that for me, won’t you?” The same thing is happening today with herbicide planning.

“And I would say those relationships are becoming stronger, especially when we don’t have these broad-spectrum, blanket-easy applications,” says Kowalski. “There are crop-limiting problems that farmers need help with from an advisor’s standpoint.”

Like Moloney, she believes many growers have been engaged in some form of advanced planning for their herbicide programs, and they also know it encompasses more than just herbicides.

“In my opinion, it applies to anything you’re applying to the crop that can cause detrimental effects to off-target species,” says Kowalski, citing everything from insecticides applied during non-foraging hours to applying nutrients following appropriate setbacks. “New crop and application technology doesn’t come to market overnight, so having market approvals for these products already in place proactively is great for growers because it’s becoming an issue across a broader geography on a daily basis.”

With the new technologies, however, comes a greater urgency for training and proper application stewardship, and Kowalski believes most of the companies that sell the products have done very well in that respect.

Greater reliance from all sectors

Training of technical advisors and support personnel is also important from a corporate perspective. As the volume of information grows, many companies have incorporated learning tools and interactive websites, complementing the efforts of the advisors and retailers. A stewardship strategy is one more facet of information and resource development.

“This is a topic that growers, retailers and the ag industry are talking about, more and more,” says Lara Rasooli, stewardship manager with BASF Canada. “When you’re looking at it from a grower’s perspective, application stewardship is something they’re practicing every day. They’re trying to see how and when they should be applying their products at the best time to achieve the best yields on their farm and to make sure they’re being stewards of their land.”

To help in defining and maintaining a stewardship strategy, BASF has developed a set of guidelines on its website. There’s also a specific resource tool for Engenia that helps applicators with conditions and timing considerations for proper applications.

“We’re looking at how we can make sure those who are using our products are using them in the safest manner,” says Rasooli. “That spray tool allows them to look at the environmental conditions and see whether it’s the best time to spray and whether there’s a risk of inversion. We try to provide an integrated pest management strategy and that’s the message we have as an industry through CropLife Canada, as well.”

Nothing wasted

Another consideration is the ongoing reliance on all trait and chemical technologies. In many ways, the development of LibertyLink, Xtend and Enlist technologies has created a default approach among growers to reach for the most convenient approach to weed management. Some have even suggested that the agri-food sector has grown increasingly reliant on chemical companies to bring new herbicides to commercial availability and alleviate evolving herbicide resistance in weed species.

“Glyphosate has been a great tool to manage weed pressure, bar none,” says Trevor Latta, brand manager with BASF Canada. “Roundup Ready crops created a simple and effective weed management practice but Mother Nature evolved and adapted this practice and challenged the industry. We’ve been taking an integrated approach, recommending the layering of chemistries, with multiple modes of effective action with tank mixes. Glyphosate’s still a great tool and we don’t want to lose it.”

A stewardship strategy can help create a more comprehensive view of crop, trait technology and chemical rotations, including the use of LibertyLink, Xtend or Enlist traited hybrids and varieties, as well as older chemistries that are still available and still effective. Latta points to the innovation and introduction of Kixor, citing it as the backbone of recent efforts to control glyphosate-resistant Canada fleabane. But it has to be used in concert with other chemistries or other groups to control something as diverse as fleabane.

“There’s an increased challenge of resistant weeds, so managing those herbicide programs becomes that much more important on an annual basis,” says Latta. Referring to an integrated approach, he cites the need to go beyond chemical means, incorporating cover crops and lengthening rotations as other practices. “Ensuring their herbicide program is reviewed on an annual basis, they also need to be looking out into the next year on a crop-rotation basis and make sure they’re using multiple modes of effective action.”

About the author

CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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