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Chemical buying: Are you being served?

Dealers can provide great services - herbicide selection and application among them. Just make sure you ask the right questions and that your loyalty isn't blind. Across the Midwest, farmers are sitting down with their herbicide dealers to plan the season's weed-control program. For most, this means deciding which brands of weedkiller to use and when to use them. While it is a well-known routine, some people are questioning its integrity.

Can herbicide dealers offer unbiased weed-control assessments for individual farming situations, or are there other, more independent and perhaps more reliable sources of information? A recent survey on weed-management decisions suggests that growers are becoming more herbicide dependent due to growing agrichemical industry competition, increases in custom application and larger farm size, among other factors.

Local dealers are an important source of information for everyone at Hertz Farm Management, according to Chad Hertz, Waterloo, IA. "We call that service and have grownto expect a high level of it. We look for someone who can provide the right services at the right time, someone who we believe in as a professional. We certainly avoid the guy who's promoting a product just because he's getting paid to."

Need info fast. They can't rely on the universities for information, Hertz says, because as fast as things are changing, the universities have trouble getting supplies for their plots. Even when they do, he relates, they can't turn the information around fast enough.

With five offices in Iowa and two in Illinois, the Hertz group depends heavily on the real world experience of its farm managers to ensure they are making the best seed and chemical choices. Although sharing information is more difficult for individual growers, Hertz suggests it's not impossible. "There are precision ag study groups and farm marketing groups, why not weed-management groups and hybrid-selection groups?" Hertz asks.

But among the selling trade, who's pushing a program and who's providing a solution?

"It's hard for an individual farmer to do a character check on every new salesperson that comes along," says Dodge County, WI, crop farmer Robert Bird, a former agrichemical salesman himself. Bird, his three brothers and their father insist on making their own herbicide selections and sticking with them. "I've seen plenty of cases where a company's program influenced the product that a dealer was promoting," Bird says.

At least one dealer found out the hard way just how committed the Birds are to their selection process. "Last year, we wanted to use Surpass, but our dealer told us he couldn't get it unless we wanted to use a lot of 21/2-gal. jugs," Bird says. "He tried talking us into using Harness. We ended up going to another dealer."

Seek out buys. "We decide on a product, then shop around for the best price," brother Fred says. "We read a lot of information and look at plots. Then we'll try new programs on a small scale and if we like what we see, we may use more the next year. Even so, we always keep service in the back of our minds. We want to make sure the dealer makes good on the products he sells by covering any necessary resprays or gets in touch with company reps for us if we do have a problem during the season."

Sources. For farmers unable or unwilling to spend the necessary time and money to plan effective weed-control programs on a field-by-field basis, Minnesota crop consultant Rick Gilbertson believes dealer programs offer the best alternative.

"Most dealers also are in the custom application business, and the last thing they want is an angry farmer who doesn't have the level of weed control he paid for," says Gilbertson, who works for Pro Ag Crop Consulting, Sauk Rapids, MN. "Dealers may err on the side of a little too much weed control occasionally. But if I were a dealer, I'd do the same thing."

Gilbertson educates himself on weed-control options by reviewing university research results, attending meetings and talking with company product-development specialists. He cautions that most manufacturer-sponsored meetings are slanted and suggests that growers look for the "quasi-public meetings," such as those run by corn and soybean groups.

"Farmers need to focus on the level of control they desire. These days there's likely to be more than one way to get the same results. If two products perform similarly and there's a five percent better program (margin) on one, what do you think a dealer's going to push?" Gilbertson questions. "I don't think this is really any concern to the grower. I hope farmers wouldn't begrudge a dealer making money, providing (the dealer's product) performs adequately for them."

Herbicides not end-all. This high demand for product performance appears to be driving agriculture's increasing reliance on custom application and dealer decision making. In fact, a study by The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University suggests that herbicide effectiveness is by far the most significant factor a grower considers when planning a corn or soybean weed-control program. The study's initiators worry, however, that the competitive nature of the agricultural chemical industry has created unrealistically high weed-control expectations.

Growers seem to feel that herbicides are the only real, effective and consistent strategy to manage their weed problems, according to Mike Owen, Iowa State University weed specialist. They also believe that the herbicides will always work. Both expectations are out of line, Owen says, as are grower expectations for transgenic crops.

"I'm not surprised by this attitude, but I am disappointed that they don't see other opportunities. Growers need to remember that herbicides are excellent agronomic tools and not the answer to all their problems," Owen says. "We feel that there are other ways of improving the consistency of a weed-management program. There are such things as timeliness of application and cultivation. In other words, we'd like to see them use a more integrated approach to weed management."

There's nothing wrong with integrated pest management, relates herbicide dealer Mark Gundrum, West Bend, WI, providing it pays and can work in the farmer's rotation program. He notes, however, that you can't create an environment that's conducive to corn borer and diseases and then not expect to have to control them.

Satisfy the customer. "We're seeing more and more farmers leave residue on their fields for erosion control. I'm all for it, but it's a give-and-take situation," Gundrum says. "You also have to be able to get good yields to survive, and that takes crop protection products. With the complexity of materials available now, it's just getting too complicated for the individual farmer. So, more and more are relying on the dealer. And the biotech products are going to make things even harder."

Gundrum estimates that 30% of his business is full-service, custom application. Of the remainder, some 60 to 70% of customers rely on his sales force to recommend their weed-control strategies.

"There are just so many products out there and more coming down the pipeline every day; it's too confusing for them," Gundrum says. "Our focus is getting the farmer the best product for the problem. We look at as many sources of information as we can. We won't just take some company's hype or let somebody force something at us because of a program."

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