Next Generation Farming

Paying the Piper in Herbicide Resistant Weeds

The age of simple and easy weed control may be over.

We've all known for years about how herbicide-resistant weeds have been a growing problem in farming. The past couple of years have been particularly hard with farmers all over the plains going back to tillage, mainly to fight back against glyphosate-resistant kochia marching into their fields. Windmill grass, marestail and other weeds have also been causing a lot of headaches.

Agronomists speaking to farmers at the K-State Southwest Research-Extension Center's field day in Tribune, Kan., last week wasted no time pointing to the elephant in the room: The end of continuous no-till is at hand. If you want to stay in business farming, chances are you'll have to start going back to tillage.

At the very minimum, they argued, you'll have to start doing at least one tillage operation in the spring if you want to have a fighting chance against the onslaught of glyphosate-resistant weeds.

For those no-tillers committed to holding out to the very end, pure chemical-control of weeds still is a possibility, but their future is going to be a lot more complicated and expensive. Farmers standing steadfastly against tilling the soil have to commit to spraying early in the season when weeds are tiny, use more expensive chemical combinations, and constantly be on high-alert with their sprayer ready for battle when weeds return.

More field scouting will also be required in order for farmers to know exactly which weeds are in your fields and which chemical combination is required to keep them under control.

The news was taken silently with no objection from the crowd. It seemed everyone attending the field day at the experiment station, including even the most committed no-tillers, was resigned to the fact that the age of simple and easy weed control was over. Gone are the days of getting all your fields sprayed in an afternoon and heading back to the house to spend the rest of the day watching football on TV. Now, we're all going to have to start going back to work and putting in some serious hours in the field.

No One to Blame But Ourselves

Some might argue this was inevitable and that it was just a matter of time until Mother Nature finally caught up to us. The implication is that farmers could do nothing to avert the loss of glyphosate as a useful technology. So, no one is to blame.

Others see it differently. As one representative from a seed company recently told me, Kansas is Ground Zero for weed resistance. No other state in the country has more chemical-resistant weeds than Kansas. It all comes down to the irresponsibility of farmers and chemical applicators who left the door wide open for weeds to become chemically resistant.

As the reasoning goes, farm size is bigger in Kansas compared to other states in the Midwest, so farmers have more acres to spray. Because of their higher spraying bill, farmers here are more inclined to skimp on their chemical rates to reduce cost, causing weeds to become tolerant and then resistant over time.

Just plain laziness is also a major factor. Rather than being vigilant and spraying fields early in the spring when weeds are small and easy to control, some waited until late in the spring or early summer to take action. At that stage of the game, weeds might be taller than sequoia trees and able to withstand chemical treatment. 

Now, all these years of cheap and lazy farming has finally caught up with us. But it's not just irresponsible farmers paying the price for it. Even the responsible ones end up picking up the bill. Weed seeds don't recognize farm borders.

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