Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions
Rooster is following issues that threaten production agriculture, ranking them from 1 (Low Danger) to 5 (Extreme Danger). When possible, Rooster also will highlight opportunities and changes that may present themselves in response to the threats.
The threats we’re following and previous rankings (if changed):
- Weed and Insect Resistance: Level 5 – Extreme Danger
- Crop Protection Products: Level 3 Considerable Danger
- Ethanol Outlook: Level 3 – Considerable Danger
- Animal Ag and Nutrient Management: Level 4 – High Danger
- Senate and House Ag Committee Bipartisanship: Level 3 – Considerable Danger (Previously Level 2 – Moderate Danger)
Weed and Insect Resistance: Level 5 – Extreme Danger
The Midwest experienced early dry weather resulting in slow closing soybean canopies – the perfect condition for late flushes of resistant waterhemp. Many agronomists, including Ken Ferrie from Crop-Tech-Consulting, are particularly concerned about non-GMO beans that were planted early because of the limited herbicide options available to control late flushes of broadleaf weeds like waterhemp. Ferrie recently urged farmers to take the yield hit to control the late waterhemp flushes rather than allowing waterhemp to build a seed bank.
Waterhemp’s more aggressive cousin, palmer amaranth, is also becoming a greater risk. According to University of Illinois weed scientist Christopher Landau, warming temperatures and increasing atmospheric CO2 both favor the northward movement of palmer amaranth. Palmer has already demonstrated that it is developing resistance to dicamba, 2,4-D, and glufosinate, and scientists suspect it may be able to detoxify new herbicides in a single exposure.
In the world of insect resistance, new solutions are headed towards the farm. A promising new trait to control soybean cyst nematode, called Nematode Resistant Soybean (NRS), is in its fifth year of commercial trials. Corteva, BASF, and MS Technologies have entered into a joint licensing agreement to develop the next generation of Enlist E3® Soybeans with NRS. Trials to date have shown an eight percent yield increase over the current soybean cyst nematode (SCN) standards. Expect regulatory approvals in the late 2020s.
Western Corn Rootworm (WCR) has developed resistance to many of the Bt traits, and the best defense against resistance is crop rotation and the rotation of traits and soil-applied insecticides. For instance, Bayer’s broadly licensed SmartStax® PRO gave farmers an excellent effective control option this year. Another potential treatment that caught our eye is the outstanding efficacy you get from a soil-applied insecticide like Force® combined with a Bt trait like DuracadeVipteraTM. The graph from Syngenta below shows that this tandem improves yield in fields with heavy WCR pressure by as many as 41 bushels per acre over the untreated checks. Two decades ago, many of us thought Bt traits would allow us to take off the planter insecticide boxes completely; however, we now know that ALL control measures are needed to prevent further resistance.
Crop Protection Products: Level 3 – Considerable Danger
Good, old, atrazine. Even the newest herbicides work better when paired with this 60-year-old technology. But an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) risk assessment in 2016 made it more difficult to use atrazine by adding restrictions whenever any adjacent water bodies were found to contain 3.4 parts per million (ppm), as opposed to the much lower previous level of 15 ppm. In 2020, atrazine got a new lease on life when the EPA renewed its registration, returning the threshold to 15 ppm. Today, the EPA is proposing a return to the 3.4 level. If successful, farmers in watersheds with levels above 3.4 ppm would be forced to stop or significantly reduce atrazine applications.
Most farm groups, including The National Corn Growers Association, are on record saying that the science does not support the 3.4 ppm threshold. The NCGA and its allies are asking the EPA for additional scientific review of the impairment baseline. The comment period for atrazine registration closes September 1.
Unfortunately, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs is both understaffed and underfunded. The industry noted that President Biden’s FY23 budget calls for an increase of $10 million, compared to the industry’s assessment that $34 million more is needed. Because of budgetary and staff shortfalls, the review of a new pesticide that typically took two years to complete now takes up to four years. A broken regulatory system is a major threat to the crop protection industry.
Ethanol Outlook: Level 3 – Considerable Danger
It’s useful to remember why the US developed an ethanol industry. Twenty years ago, a shortage of gas and plentiful corn at $2 per bushel made ethanol an attractive alternative energy source that benefited farmers and extended the U.S. fuel supply. The ethanol industry today underwrites 30 percent of US corn use. As the ethanol industry was starting, environmental critics said ethanol requires more energy to produce than it creates. The oil refining and distribution industry strongly objected to blending ethanol with gasoline. Fast-forward a couple of decades, corn is at $6, environmental groups say that ethanol creates more pollution than it reduces, and the refining industry still hates blending ethanol.
Today the current administration is pushing electric vehicles (EV) and the auto manufacturing industry is in lockstep. The President is working hard to extend the $7,000 tax credit for the purchase of an EV with a goal of increasing the percentage of EVs to 50 percent by 2030. This is obviously a threat to both the ethanol industry as well as the refining industry, and the two will need to work together.
In the last week of July, a group of bipartisan farm state congressional members led by Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced The Next Generation Fuels Act. The act would require standards to be developed for fuels with 20- to 30-percent ethanol, with an octane 95 and 98 that lowers greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to a 2021 gasoline baseline. The Act further directs automobile manufacturers to design vehicles that can use the new fuel by 2026. To date, there is little to no reaction from the petroleum or auto industries, but who knows – maybe we all can be friends.
Animal Ag and Nutrient Management: Level 4 – High Danger
An old and reoccurring threat to livestock producers – drought – is hitting the southern plains. Producers are liquidating herds because of dried-up pastures and local and national hay shortages. Areas of Texas where rainfall averages 30-plus inches of rain per year have received only four inches so far in 2022. Producers forced to sell cows today are finding prices far below breakeven.
On the nutrient management front, the EPA has published its plans to finalize an interim final rule defining the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) by March 2023. The agency is pushing its regulatory timetable because there are currently two Clean Water Act cases before the Supreme Court and the agency believes that a finalized rule can boost the government’s case.
Watching the US regulatory process grind through its gears is painful, but this nothing like the agony experienced by farmers in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is one the most intensively farmed areas in the world. The Dutch government in 2019, to meet EU climate guidelines, set a goal of reducing nitrogen emission by 50 percent by 2030. At first, the government “requested” that farmers adjust feed rations to help meet these new requirements, and it provided funding to buy livestock from farmers wishing to retire. But last month the government gloves came off, and the three major Dutch livestock regions have five options:
- Invest in sustainable technologies to support a farm’s current animal numbers
- Reduce livestock numbers to the space available
- Adjust the farms business model like switching to alternative crops or a non-farming business
- Quit Farming
Dutch farmers are outraged by these choices and are out in large numbers demonstrating against them. Farmers say the government singles them out for a problem that cuts across many industries. Some farmers are showing their discontent by spreading manure across highways in the targeted regions.
Senate and House Ag Committees Bipartisanship and Relevance: Level 3 – Considerable Danger (Previously Level 2 – Moderate Danger)
Since the start of the Covid pandemic, Congress has created trillions of dollars of spending that has bypassed the regular order of committee systems. Power has shifted from the committee to the House and Senate Leadership. A prime example is the $485 Billion Inflation Reduction Act negotiated by Senators Chuck Schumer (D, NY) and Joe Manchin (D, WV). The bill appropriates money that would have normally fallen across five different committees.
To gain some perspective, below is a pie chart that shows how the 2018 Farm Bill was broken out. Note that the total Farm Bill Conservation Title spending is $29 Billion.
Compare this to the single negotiation between two powerful senators that allocated $20 billion for farmers to reduce greenhouse emissions. At present, it’s unclear who will truly be eligible to receive this funding.
Under the established order, savvy ag committee legislators and staff members would know how to get dollars to working farms through Credit Commodity Corporation, Farm Services Agency, and the NRCS. Moreover, dollars that were established in Farm Bills were generally renewable. Under the current system, all bets are off. At best, farmers can hope that party leaders will see agriculture as a priority in the next negotiation.