When I was growing up in the 1980s, Australia was the “it” country. There were many Australian-inspired items in vogue back then — Crocodile Dundee movies, Men at Work music and Foster’s beer, which came in a motor oil-sized can (insert your Foster’s taste joke here). At the time, Australia represented an untamed wilderness to many of us in America — a dream of simpler times.
Today, Australia has largely faded from our popular view. But for agriculture, the land down under could portend not a dream of untamed wilderness, but a nightmare of untamed weeds.
A few months back, I had the opportunity to attend a summit looking at the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds in the U.S. As most growers will attest to, weeds that can’t be controlled with conventional herbicide applications are becoming a serious problem in this country. To combat them, growers have had to mix up chemistries, add applications and, in extreme cases, resort to weeding by hand or hoe.
One of the speakers at this event was Dr. Michael Walsh, research associate professor at the University of Western Australia. In a nutshell, Walsh says U.S. agriculture hasn’t seen anything yet when it comes to resistant weeds if Australia’s experience is considered. There today, he says, approximately 98% of the nation’s ryegrass is resistant to all herbicide control methods.
“It’s actually unusual to find ryegrass anymore that isn’t resistant,” said Walsh.
In many ways, he added, the spread of this weed problem has been self-inflicted by Australia’s growers themselves. “Many in agriculture in our country raised sheep back in the early 20th century and planted the ryegrass for them to eat,” he said. “This variety was favored because it was fast growing and adaptive.”
When the nation’s agricultural base shifted from sheep to wheat in the 1970s, the now established ryegrass remained and continued to adapt. “Our no tillage, no rotation farming practices led to the perfect environment for resistance to develop and thrive,” said Walsh.
As a consequence, today’s Australian growers have largely given up trying to control weeds with herbicides. Instead, they either bale the trash into bundles (with the weed seed hopefully captured inside), burn it or crush it in units towed behind the combines.
“Because of the added cost and trouble controlling weeds has brought, while reducing overall yields and profits, the number of Australian growers has declined from 14,000 to 4,000 in just 14 years,” said Walsh.
Can you imagine approximately 70% of grower-customers disappearing in the next decade because of weed troubles? This is an extremely scary picture if you ask me.
Agriculture in the U.S. needs to work together to get a handle on this problem, and fast. Otherwise, in a few years, we will likely be referring to our country’s agricultural base as “the land down under the weeds.”