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Growing non-GMO beans? Weed control is priority

TAGS: Weeds
Courtesy of Anna Busch soybean field
COMPARING BEANS: Last year, grower Brett Taylor, with the help of Penn State Extension, compared three non-GMO soybeans for weed control and yields. With a good premium from his local elevator, he’s going 100% STS this year, even with high commodity prices.
Non-GMO soybeans can bring a solid premium, but high commodity prices might make them hard to justify.

With dicamba application rules changing, and tightening again this year, grower Brett Taylor isn’t taking any chances. He’s not growing dicamba-tolerant soybeans this year.

In fact, he’s not growing any genetically modified soybeans this year.

“Well, there’s a really good non-GMO market up here, and Synchrony is hell on marestail,” says Taylor, who grows 700 acres, raises 100 brood cows and has three broiler chicken houses near Turbotville, Pa.

Anna Busch, a Penn State Extension educator in Union County, says there’s an opportunity for growers to tap into more premium markets that use non-GMO beans, but that really depends on where you’re located.

Justifying non-GMO beans, as with any crop, comes down to profit and cost — how much of a premium you’ll get from the elevator versus how much it will cost to grow, mainly the cost of weed control.

“Make sure that the premium is high enough to offset the herbicide costs to make the non-GM systems profitable. However, I realize that with many generic herbicide options on the market, there are ways to have adequate weed control at lower costs,” says Dwight Lingenfelter, weed science Extension educator for Penn State. “But farmers using these non-GM platforms need to spend some time listing their troublesome weeds and then thinking through the various options [herbicides and other tactics] to maximize weed control in their fields and how to best minimize costs.”

Taylor’s crop rotation is 350 acres of corn, 250 acres of soybeans and another 100 acres of triticale and wheat. Depending on conditions, he’ll double-crop some beans after wheat; if not, those wheat fields get planted into oat cover crops.

Last year, half his acres were planted to dicamba-tolerant soybeans and half to Sulfonylurea-tolerant soybeans, with the STS a much cheaper seed option.

“You can save anywhere from $10 to $30 an acre depending on where you shop,” Taylor says.

Taylor is aggressive when it comes to weed control, running an “extreme pre-spray program” on all his beans.

“A lot of guys are going to cut the corner on the front end where we never did," he says. "We use quite a cocktail up front, and then when we come back, we come back with a shot of Xtend and Roundup."

On his STS, the post included a shot of Synchrony and Chlethodim, “and the Synchrony is way cheaper than Xtend when we looked at it. It was quite a bit cheaper.”

Taylor's yields — dicamba-tolerant and STS — average about 50 bushels per acre per year. Last year, though, his Xtend soybeans averaged 70 bushels per acre, with his STS yielding about 56 bushels per acre.

The big advantage for the STS was the premium he got from the elevator — $1.10 to $1.15 a bushel. And he doesn’t have to worry about getting special training to spray dicamba, like the new certifications required for dicamba this year.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, we’re all in on one bean," Taylor says.

Market dynamics

With soybean prices going through the roof, it might be a tough time to justify growing non-GMO seeds.

In Michigan, there’s no expectation of increased acres of non-GMO soybeans this season, says Mike Stanton, a Michigan State University soybean educator, after consulting with three of the state’s five buyers. “The contracts for non-GMO beans are going to be flat at best, and maybe even down for the 2021 growing season, mostly due to high commodity prices,” he says.

The extra management required for non-GMO soybeans is more worthwhile when soybean prices are lower.

“The premium looks more attractive under low commodity prices than it does under high commodity prices,” Stanton says. “The percentage of your return increases as you have a lower commodity price. If you add $1.50 to $8.50 beans, that’s a higher percentage than adding $1.50 onto $11 beans. Growers are waiting to forward-contract and waiting to see what’s the best way to take advantage of higher market prices.”

Stanton says growers need to consider weed control differences and options. The MSU Weed Control Guide is a good resource and is available online at canr.msu.edu/weeds.

In the guide, Christy Sprague, Michigan State weed Extension specialist, provides commercial comparisons, including a GMO commercial comparison, on weed control.

“All the herbicide companies provide their programs, and the university compares these various commercial programs head-to-head,” Stanton says. “It tells you what weeds were controlled, what level of control, level of crop injury, yield impact, and then they add in the economics. It’s a tremendous resource, an essential resource for anyone raising non-GMO soybeans.”

Also, consider the economics of growing the crop itself. “One buyer told me he felt non-GMOs were worthwhile growing, even with higher commodity prices. Seed costs are lower, there’s a premium and yields are comparable. It seems like it's going to be a better revenue generator,” Stanton recalls. “Evaluate the revenue potential of both enterprises.”

Another consideration is making sure you have segregated storage.

“If you’re going to do this, you need a higher level of management in record keeping and identity preservation, including cleaning your combine between crops," Stanton says. "Also, quality is another thing buyers are deeply concerned about. Beans can't be split or have checked seed coats at all. They've got to be harvested at the right moisture content, and with the right combine settings to ensure a high-quality product."

Herbicide resistance a couple years ago forced some growers to seriously consider non-GMO crops and using older chemistries. “So why not get the premium?" Stanton says. “But things have changed a little bit in the last couple of years with some new chemistries and new traits that are helping with GMO weed control options.”

Stanton says that the general trend is toward more non-GMO foods. “There’s just a blip in the market because of high commodity prices,” he says.

Specific weed options

STS were made available in the mid-1990s and have been bred to tolerate sulfonylurea herbicides. These herbicides are ALS inhibitors and are part of the Group 2 family.

Lingenfelter says that certain weed species in the Northeast — mainly pigweeds, marestail, common chickweed, ragweeds and others — have become resistant to this herbicide family.

“Also, Classic, Harmony and their premix combination, Synchrony, are notoriously weak on Eastern black nightshade and prickly sida,” he says. “However, in general, ALS herbicides such as Pursuit, Raptor, Classic, Harmony and FirstRate can be used in conventional or GM soybeans, and still provide control of several key broadleaf weeds.”

Here are some specific recommendations:

Classic. Controls cocklebur, smartweed, burcucumber and provides suppression of certain perennials such as bindweed and pokeweed.

Harmony. Effective on lambsquarters, smartweed and velvetleaf.

FirstRate. Controls cocklebur, annual morningglory and ragweed.

Pursuit and Raptor. Good on cocklebur, Eastern black nightshade and velvetleaf, as well as annual grasses.

Lingenfelter notes that since glyphosate is very effective on grasses, a post-grass herbicide will need to be used in most cases. Options include clethodim, Assure II, Fusilade, Poast or others.

“Glyphosate still provides good control of many broadleaf weeds, so one has to make sure that the alternative herbicides and tankmixes provide effective control of the overall spectrum of weeds,” he says.

“Keep in mind, perennial weeds like pokeweed, hemp dogbane and Canada thistle can be more difficult to control, especially in no-till settings without the use of glyphosate in crops. However, with the use of appropriate two-pass herbicide programs and rates, well-managed crop rotations, cover crops and other effective agronomic practices, these non-GM systems can work.”

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