In a multibillion-dollar industry, where a multitude of variables can mean the difference between profit and loss for growers, the many costs of farm production are an important topic of conversation today.

According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the overall price index for U.S. farm production inputs in April rose 2.6% from a year earlier. This included a 4.6% increase in the overall cost of ag chemicals and, more specifically, a 2.9% increase in herbicide inputs. 

Weeds can overtake a crop, costing a farmer. The days of waiting for weeds to emerge and hitting them with glyphosate alone are ending. And yes, a soybean crop is in there.

Weeds can overtake a crop, costing a farmer. The days of waiting for weeds to emerge and hitting them with glyphosate alone are ending. And yes, a soybean crop is in there.

Given this, having a long-term plan to properly manage weeds is now more important than ever, says Bob Hartzler, an Extension weed specialist and professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. He says 2013 has been a “tough year for growers in many areas, especially where wet weather in the spring caused farmers to change their weed management plans. The short-term cost of all this has been the impact weeds have had on yields.”

 

Overall, Hartzler believes any discussion of weed management goes well beyond 2013, as it has been steadily growing in importance over the last 10 years and will continue to be an issue, unless changes are made in both attitudes and practices.

“It used to be that even bad managers could control their weeds because the products worked so well, but over time the weeds have evolved and adapted,” says Hartzler. “Some farmers are adapting well to this, while others aren’t doing so well.”

The costs of bad weed management can be major. For example, back in 2011, Larry Steckel, University of Tennessee Extension weed specialist, developed a calculation whereby he estimated that glyphosate-resistant weeds cost soybean production $120 million annually — just in Tennessee.

So when you start adding other crops and states to the equation, it’s clear the annual cost of controlling weeds merits a great deal of attention no matter your operation’s geographic location.

In denial

“Many farmers, in some sense, are in denial because they’re so used to the industry coming up with a new solution to combat their problems,” says Hartzler. “But it has been more than 25 years since the industry has discovered a new class of herbicide, so we need to change attitudes of farmers, and hopefully, their practices will change as well.”

Hartzler says costs have gone up because growers have been forced to add new products, due to the growing list of herbicide-resistant weeds. In soybeans alone, he estimates weed management costs have risen 30% over the last five years, so growers who don’t pay close attention to weed issues run the risk of major losses. “You could lose 40% to 50% of your yield potential with a serious weed problem and a bad management plan. You just can’t rely on spraying [glyphosate] anymore.”

Hartzler says it’s important to look at weed management over the long term, not just yearly. “You need to protect your yield potential now, but also the value of your herbicide in the future,” he notes.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to take a total weed control failure for some growers to understand that what they’ve been doing the last 15 years doesn’t work,” says Hartzler. “People are learning and changing their ways, but those who don’t run the risk of going out of business.” 

Yontz writes from Urbandale, Iowa.