Everyone knows the famous opening line to Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In this lead, Dickens was setting the stage for his readers to understand that life in 19th century England could be at polar opposites depending upon the circumstances for the individual character.
I was reminded of this quote – unfortunately as it turns out – during the recent Strategies to Manage Herbicide-Resistant Weeds summit, held in Washington, DC. Much of the early part of this event featured speakers from the university level who specialize in weed research. For the most part, they all pointed out that growers themselves were partly to blame for the rapid rise of resistant weeds by following the same control practices year-after-year, allowing the weeds to quickly adapt. Their advice was simple: “Don’t do the same thing over and over or you are going to have resistant-weed populations.”
However, according to a few of the growers that spoke out at the event, they know this is the way to control the spread of resistant weeds. But following these practices is often outweighed by the need for profit. And like Dickens’ opening quote, this scenario can play out in both the best of times and the worst of times.
In the best of times, the desire for more profit can work against following best management practices (BMP) for weed control. Consider the tale of this Illinois grower: “Last year, we had 55 inches of rain in our area in the spring, so I couldn’t have any spraying done in my fields until July 5. By then, the horseweed in my corn fields was five feet tall. Now I know that spraying horseweed this tall with glyphosate won’t do much, but it will do something. In the end, the weeds didn’t die out completely, but I still ended up with 100 bushels per acre in the fall. I know this probably wasn’t the right thing to do from a weed control standpoint, but if I had scrapped that field, I would have taken hundreds of dollars out of my pocket.”
In the worst of times, BMP is even tougher for growers. “Say to do proper weed control costs me $18 per acre,” said an Iowa grower. “When commodity prices are high like right now, and I’m making $140 profit per acre, investing $18 of that back into good weed control is no big deal. But if commodity prices fall back to where they were a few years ago, $18 profit per acre is all I’ll be making. In those conditions, do I want to risk 100% of my profits today to prevent a problem that might happen tomorrow?”
It’s clear from these comments that the education message on BMP for weed control is getting through to the marketplace. But getting everyone to follow this advice to prevent resistant weeds when balanced with making a living is still a Dickens of a decision for most.