Farmers face ‘less than zero’ good news in weed battle

by George Jared ([email protected]) 847 views 

Arkansas farmers have been bracing for record high fertilizer costs in 2022 along with other higher input costs. Now, an old foe is predicted by agriculture scientists to be much worse this growing season than normal.

Tommy Butts, extension weed scientist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said there’s little good news for farmers as planting commences in the Natural State.

“I have less than zero good news, as far as weeds go,” Butts said. “This is a year to survive.”

Farmers have been battling weeds since organized agriculture began thousands of years ago. Weeds deprive crops of water, nutrients and can limit sunlight from reaching plants, according to Science Daily. Weeds cause billions of dollars in lost profit each year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s often the top problem faced by farmers.

Weeds degrade crop quality which leads to significant loss of yield. And while herbicide technology has improved in recent decades, the tendency of weeds to develop resistance has gradually imperiled that technology’s effectiveness.

In 2022, however, growers will also face a disrupted supply chain that could limit access to many herbicide technologies they’ve come to rely on. Between natural disasters that have destroyed production facilities, a shipping crisis and labor shortages caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a plastics shortage and China’s move to reduce overall production to ameliorate air pollution ahead of the 2022 Summer Olympic Games, growers in Arkansas and elsewhere are faced with limited availability and skyrocketing prices for herbicides and more.

Butts said the situation may lead growers to make one of two decisions – and neither are good.

“I have two primary concerns for this year,” he said. “One is the high prices of some of our primary herbicides, like glyphosate and glufosinate. Those two are potentially in short supply, as well as atrazine for corn and some others. So one of two things is going to happen. Guys are either going to have to spend through the roof to get good weed control, and just be unprofitable for the year, or, in the second scenario, guys just cut back.”

A major weed problem this year will have years long ramifications, he added.

“If we do that, more than likely, we’re going to have weed escapes, which then may or may not affect your yield this year, but you’re for sure going to replenish the weed seed bank, setting us up for future problems.”

Input costs were predicted to be much higher this year, and it might be worse than originally predicted. Fertilizer prices have risen 200% to 300%, herbicides such as glyphosate and glufosinate have also risen as much as 300%, costing as much as $53 and $120 a gallon, respectively.

Nearly 40% of the world’s potash is produced in Russia and Belarus. As the war in Ukraine continues to rage, experts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture believe overall fertilizer prices will continue to soar as international market competition intensifies over limited supplies.

Scott Stiles, extension economist for the Division of Agriculture, said herbicide prices were among the many input costs growers will grapple with this year. Diesel prices have risen dramatically going from $2.60 per gallon in November to $4.74 at the end of March. Those prices are not expected to decline significantly in the short-term.

“That level of increase has added $20 an acre to our rice variable costs, $10 an acre to soybeans and $11 to $13 an acre for corn and cotton, depending on irrigation method,” he said.

On a positive note, Stiles said some fertilizer prices have slightly ticked down. Stiles said prices for urea and di-ammonium phosphate coming through the Port of New Orleans have fallen about 28% and 5%, respectively, since mid-November.

“Changes in Gulf prices doesn’t always translate to the local retail level, but we hear from growers that Urea is now being offered at prices below the highs seen in late 2021,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see, but too early to say if it’s the start of a continual trend lower. Historically, we see a firmer price trend in all fertilizer prices from January to March. An extended price decline will generally start sometime in April and extend into late summer.”

Jim Dickson, an agricultural consultant, said he plans to sit down with his clients and study where input costs can be cut, primarily through reducing fertilizer.

“The price has basically doubled what it was last year,” Dickson said. “We take a lot of soil samples every year, so I think we’re ahead of the curve there.”

Earl Hart, who primarily produces cattle and wheat on about 600 acres of land in northern Lonoke County, said rising input costs have likely steered him away from a planned expansion into row crops.

“I’ve planted wheat over the last several years, and mainly use it for stock grazing,” Hart said. “I just bought a farm with a lot of crop base on it, and I don’t know which way I’m going to go on it, but after this production meeting, I’m leaning toward irrigated hay. My inputs kick my tail, just like the row crops farmers’ do. I farm to make money.”

Butts said that if popular herbicides do prove too expensive or too difficult to acquire, growers should fall back on the basics of good weed control and crop management.

“Weed control is going to take some really specific, precise management this year,” Butts said. “The easiest way to sum it up is to do the little things – they will add up at the end of the year. Some of those little things include prioritizing our burndown to make sure we start clean, so we don’t have weeds already going when we plant and our crop is trying to emerge. Use pre-emergence residual herbicides, because we haven’t seen as big an issue there with supply, so far. The prices haven’t gone through the roof to the same degree.”

Killing weeds on the front end will help save money by the year end, he added.

“So if we can use those and overlap them, one, we get more consistent weed control, because the residuals are just more consistent, but then we can also save a little money,” Butts said. “It’s always easier to kill weeds before they emerge.”