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Roundup Ready: revolution, not miracle

In a recent Delta Farm Press column, Ford Baldwin made a friendly jab at weed scientists who say that “Roundup Ready isn't a miracle.” I'm good friends with Ford and knew that his comments weren't malicious. In fact, I always find Fords comments to be insightful.

Ford made a really good point — that sometimes we forget just what Roundup Ready has done for the world of weed control. I, however, am one who sometimes uses the “not a miracle” phrase, and I don't think I'm going to stop using it.

Some of this is word games. My favorite word would be “revolution.” I argue that the word “miracle” has some extra baggage with it, in that we usually expect miracles to be perfect and flawless.

Roundup Ready is not a perfect weed control program. First of all, study after study stresses the importance of spraying weeds on time. There are plenty of stories of growers losing yields because they are letting weeds stay too long. I am still shocked when my northern counterparts say the average glyphosate timing is for 8-inch to 12-inch tall weeds.

Fortunately we do better in the Mid-South, but a lot of folks aren't spraying on time. “Not a miracle” is a reminder that you still have to spray on time, just like in the old days.

What happens if your weeds get a little bit too big or things get a little bit dry? Glyphosate generally does better than traditional herbicides. But guess what: it's not a miracle. Sometimes it fails. Glyphosate can fail on large, drought-stressed weeds, just like old herbicides fail.

I don't want to use the word “miracle” and have growers think that it will never fail.

There is a great story from the early days of Roundup Ready. Monsanto held a pre-launch meeting for university weed scientists. We went around the room guessing what percentage of our soybean acres would eventually become Roundup Ready.

One after another, the university guys said 20 percent. We were banking that the 10 other soybean herbicide companies, their sales forces and their 20-some products would keep the squeeze on Roundup Ready.

Then a Monsanto marketing person stood up and said, “Our market data tells us that we're going to wind up on 40 percent of the soybean acres.”

We thought they were pretty darn confident in saying that, but as it now turns out, we both missed the boat.

There is a long list of phrases about Roundup Ready that might be overused. Here are a few not so widely heard:

“It provides outstanding weed control, but it might be convenience that sells it as much as weed control.”

“Herbicides have gotten very cheap and seed has gotten very expensive, but the bottom line for the grower has improved.”

“Roundup Ready came at the right time, when pigweeds were escaping traditional herbicides and grass control was expensive.”

“With farmers having more acres and fewer employees, and commodity prices lower, Roundup Ready's effectiveness, reliability, simplicity, and cost have been exactly what they needed.”

“Pre-emergence herbicides and tank mixes work well in Roundup Ready programs, but they rarely beat a glyphosate-only program.”

Saying “it's not a miracle” is our way of reminding farmers about the basics of weed control. The Roundup Ready revolution has made big changes in weed control, but it hasn't replaced the classic rules of targeting early sprays on young, actively growing weeds.

Andy Kendig is an Extension weed specialist at the University of Missouri Delta Center.

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