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:

  • Weed and Insect Resistance: Level 5 – Extreme Danger
  • Crop Protection Products: Level 3 ­Considerable Danger (Previously Level 2 – Moderate Danger)
  • Ethanol Outlook: Level 3 – Considerable Danger (Previously Level 4 – High Danger)
  • Animal Ag and Nutrient Management: Level 3 – Considerable Danger
  • Senate and House Ag Committee Bipartisanship: Level 2 – Moderate Danger (Previously Level 1 – Low Danger

Weed and Insect Resistance: Level 5 – Extreme Danger

We have consistently rated this issue as a top challenge to farmers because the cost of soybean weed control has tripled over the last 10 years. The herbicide-resistant pigweed species Palmer Amaranth and waterhemp that have bedeviled soybean growers across the U.S. have shown an amazing ability to tolerate and even gain resistance to post-applied dicamba, glufosinate, and 2,4-D. Arkansas researchers worry that Palmer Amaranth is moving to metabolic resistance, which means the plant can metabolize large number of modes of action including herbicides the weed has never encountered.

The recommended response to resistant weeds is to use a range of modes of action in layered approach in three applications from preplant to canopy closing. Equipment manufacturers are offering farmers a new tool to use with herbicides to control weeds called Harvest Weed Seed Control (HWSC). This new process, in which weed seeds are ground up as they emerge from the combine, is being tested by land grant universities and is commercially used in Australia. Field tests show weed seed kills of up to 90% and the earlier issue of combine clogging has been resolved. Arkansas researchers said HWSC technology may work best on larger farms covering at least 5000 acres.

On the insect resistance front, corn rootworm (CRW) Bt resistance is a growing area of concern.  Recent data has shown that Bt-pyramided products continue to control CRW but feeding pressure is just below economic injury levels. The introduction of SmartStax Pro (Cry34ab1/Cry35Ab1 + Cry3Bb1 + RNAi) is seen by entomologists as a timely launch in 2021 holding CRW feeding in 2020 and 2021 trials well under economic levels.  Preserving the efficacy of Bt proteins found in SmartStax Pro is a key to its long-term success.

Crop Protection Products: Level 3 – Considerable Danger  

The Crop Protection industry relies on the integrity of the regulatory system administered by the EPA to maintain the public trust. The industry pays fees to maintain the program and provides the bulk of the data analyzed by the agency to assess the safety of each product.  The largest threat to the industry remains court challenges alleging personal injury from crop protection products. For years, crop protection products registered by EPA were shielded from liability or pre-empted from liability. This shield was pierced when juries found Monsanto liable for cancer caused by Roundup. Bayer has set aside $16 billion to settle these cases. In December, Bayer slowed the settlement process when the Supreme Court showed interest in interceding the lower court judgements. The herbicide Paraquat is also being challenged in court on similar grounds as Roundup, for an alleged link to Parkinson’s disease.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) reintroduced a bill entitled “Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act” to ban active ingredients currently labelled under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.  The Senator favors the precautionary principle used in other countries that allows products to be banned with small amounts of data and allowing states and citizens to ban products based on local concerns.  This legislation is unlikely to move ahead in the current Congress but offers hope to the anti-pesticide lobby to fight another day and to continue efforts to ban pesticides in counties and cities.

Ethanol Outlook: Level 3 – Considerable Danger

The ethanol industry consumes 5 billion bushels annually, or one third of the total U.S. crop. The chart below shows the large growth of ethanol since 2005 compared to the other major users of corn: Food, exports, and feed. Threats to the ethanol industry can fundamentally alter farming in the U.S.

The ethanol industry has traditionally enjoyed strong support from Congress and the President, while facing opposition from a well-financed lobby of detractors that include petroleum refiners and the environmental community. In recent years, however, this governmental support is waning while the opposition remains strong.

One of the first cracks to appear in Ethanol’s support in Washington occurred in 2020 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sided with petroleum refiners, granting small refiners exemptions from having to blend Ethanol. The Trump administration granted a waiver for year-round sales of E15 blends, but this waiver was challenged by the refiners who argued the EPA exceeded its authority. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court put the final nail in the E15 waiver when it refused to review the lower court ruling.

With the Supreme Court loss in January, the challenges rolled over to the Biden Administration, which promptly announced a goal to increase the market share of electric vehicles (EV) sold in the U.S. to 50 percent by 2030. The goal is not binding but major automakers say they believe 40 to 50 percent is achievable. California law will require all new vehicles sold after 2035 to be EV. The biofuel industry points out that vehicles have a 12-year lifespan and the demand for petroleum and ethanol will remain steady for the foreseeable future, even if the 2030 goal is achieved. What is unknown, as the gas vehicle fleet transitions to EVs, is how new energy policies will accommodate or reject the use of biofuels, including a possible scenario that biodiesel is embraced at the expense of ethanol.

Animal Ag and Nutrient Management: Level 3 – Considerable Danger

The Biden Administration wasted no time in reversing the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that defines which streams, rivers, and wetlands are subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. The WOTUS rule is of particular interest to landowners who are interested in development, as well as large animal feeding operations that fall under state and federal permitting authority.

The previous WOTUS ruling adopted by the Trump Administration was deemed too lenient by the environmental community who claimed that it ignored 40% of U.S. wetlands. The Biden Administration will use the 2015 Obama rules temporarily until new a new WOTUS rule-making process is completed. The process has started, and the first field hearings were held in January.  Agriculture is making the case for the clarity found in the Trump WOTUS rule that would only regulate clearly connected water bodies to navigable waters, such as larger streams and rivers.

Animal agriculture has primarily faced regulatory scrutiny over discharges into regulated waters. We are on alert that methane produced by large dairies and feedlots is an area of regulatory interest by the EPA. Methane is considered the most potent of greenhouse gases. The U.S. Senate has draft legislation to charge oil and gas companies fees for wells that are leaking methane. Scientists are using satellites that can pinpoint large methane emissions that could bring animal ag into the picture. Animal ag is estimated to produce 10% of U.S. methane emissions. One thing we have learned from following the ethanol issue is the petroleum industry will not allow themselves to be singled out if their methane emissions become regulated.

Senate and House Ag Committee Bipartisanship: Level 2 – Moderate Danger

As Congress wrestled with the multi-trillion dollar Build Back Better (BBB) legislation, funding decisions for many committees, including agriculture, was pushed to the side. Normally these funding decisions are accomplished by committees who draft legislation and pass it upward to leadership for consideration on the floor. This time of year is known as Farm Bill “table setting” to determine issues and priorities to include in next year’s Farm Bill cycle. Just as the first Farm Bill hearing adjourned this week, the Biden Administration announced a $1 billion climate change initiative by executive order that is funded out Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) funds.  Between executive action and leadership oversight the ag committees will struggle to maintain control of its central issues.

As conditions change, we’ll do our best to alert you on these issues and tell you if they’re moving up or down the “danger list.” For now, we recommend:

  • Join an organization like Farm Bureau or other Ag livestock or commodity organizations that will help you see what’s coming and how to plan accordingly.
  • Lend your voice to shape legislation, both in writing and by attending public hearings
  • Take action to stay in front of the situation. For example, every livestock farm should implement a nutrient management plan with the guidance of local soil and water associations or the NRCS.