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My history with RoundUp and life on the farm
August 12, 2019

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Part 3 of a series

Every day I do a 40-minute commute through Clay and Dickinson counties in Iowa and besides the uneven crops this year what sticks out that is most apparent is the pristine weed control. Weeds are universally absent in the corn and soybean fields that look picture perfect creating the appearance that everyone is a great farmer here. There are a few milk-weeds in the ditches for the monarch butterflies but the ditches are clean of weeds too.

It has not always been like that. A few decades ago, you could take a drive and a field on just one side of the road was clean of weeds. That farmer had done a good job with the cultivator and walking soybeans. A field on the other side of the road, however, may have been very dirty with foxtail, smartweed, button-weeds and sunflower. Back then that is how you told a good farmer from a bad farmer. Bad farmers struggled with weed control so were easy to spot. After RoundUp herbicide became available and later GMO corn/soybeans, all of the farmers became good farmers. You can no longer judge good farmers from bad farmers by how clear of weeds that their fields are. RoundUp herbicide made them all equal. Crops may be late here this year but the weed control is phenomenal. Years of using RoundUp has lowered the weed seed bank in the soil and reduced tillage doesn't open the ground up for weeds to germinate.

I believe in global warming/climate change as a threat to the planet. This is my 47th crop so I zipped right on by Howard Buffet's "40 Chances" in his book of how many times farmers get to grow a crop. In that time, I have seen the climate change here. It used to be hot/dry in August where my dad would worry about our subsoil moisture saying that we needed a full profile to get 100 bpa corn yield. Back then we spring plowed, disked, field cultivated and then planted, drug the crops, rotary-hoed and then cultivated for weeds one or two times after the crops came up. We opened the soil many times which cost us moisture and trimmed roots.

Today we put down a pre-plant fertilizer and herbicide and then lightly incorporate the inputs and manure and then plant in a soybean-to-corn crop rotation. Corn-on-corn takes more tillage. Many farmers never open the ground up with tillage or for weed control. As noted, nearly half of my corn this spring was planted at night using the guidance technology available today. We don't even run a planter marker though the field. Weed control is accomplished by sprayers moving fast with 120-foot spray booms covering lots of acres very quickly. Hybrids today are bred to defend the plant from lack of moisture and too much heat. Genetics have been adapted to our other technologies.

As I mentioned, I believe in Climate Change Science. Rising CO2 levels that increase earth temperatures result in the two coasts getting hotter while the heartland is wetter and cooler, at least for a while. We now have corn yields here in W IA that equal those in E IA where they used to get more rain than we did. Now we get more rain here in NW IA with a higher average rainfall so corn is well watered to produce maximum yields. Farmland prices rose here as a result of the higher productivity in Western Iowa from climate change. Tile drainage systems have been a major defense against climate change. We have to thoroughly tile fields or suffer yield loss from excessive wet conditions. The DesMoines Water Works needs to adapt to that. The Badlands of SD used to be hot/dry which was why they called them 'bad' and Wall Drug used to be a water-hole for real. Now they grow corn more than halfway across SD where they wanted to plant 6 mln acres of corn this year but may have planted just 4.8 mln because it was too wet.

Now let's use our imagination. Imagine if this year's, unprecedented climate change driven, wet/cold spring had occurred in 1965 with the technology that existed then in farming. Today it takes about 10 days for the average farmer to plant his crops due to what we now call the 'modern' practices that are employed. In our operation they can plant 500 acres per day. It is absolutely amazing to me that we were unable to plant our crops in April/May due to the wet/cold extremes in weather this spring keeping farmers from fields.

Back then in the 1960's, they did much tillage, needed daylight to see to drive and follow the planter marker. They needed an almost incomparable number of days suitable for fieldwork to get everything done relative to today. We don't realize how much that we have already adapted to climate change by tiling fields, employing minimum or no tillage (using RoundUp for burndown), using 24 row auto-steered planters and seed delivered by automated boxes. Yet given unprecedented weather extremes this spring, 75 percent of our corn crop and 95 percent of our soybean crop in Clay and Dickinson counties here went in much delayed on or after June 5th according to FSA certification of acres.

Farmers used every available minute day and night literally to be in the fields when conditions allowed. Imagine if we had to do a lot of tillage and were using 4 and 6 row planters in daylight, how much worse planting progress would have been. Were my commute in 1965, the crop conditions that I would have been seeing would have been an unmitigated total disaster. This would have been pretty much the case nationwide. We did not have the technology then to manage a crop year like this and the impact on US crop production would have been devastating as a result.

Looking at weed control in specific, RoundUp/Glyphosate is a major tool in our managing climate change. If we were still using the organic farming tillage practices of the 1960's that meant burning more fossil fuels and turning over more soil when cultivating. This year they would have been turning over mud which makes it hard to kill weeds that way. There were not enough days to cultivate like they used to in the 1960s so the picture that I saw on my commute of pristine weed control would have instead been a weedy total mess with the limited weed control technology of the 1960's.

To be continued next week.

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

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