The year was 2008. Eli Manning captivated the country during Superbowl XLII with a game-winning fourth quarter drive to stun the undefeated New England Patriots. Illinois Senator, Barack Obama, was elected the 44th President of the United States and two fellas by the name of Flo Rida and T-Pain had the number one song in the country with “Low.”
2008 was also the year Roundup Ready® sugarbeets revolutionized the sugarbeet industry.
The Pre-Roundup Ready Era
As many growers recall, weed control before Roundup Ready was a challenge. Between microrate spray regimens, cultivation and hand weeding, establishing good weed control was difficult and expensive. Scouting for weeds began immediately after planting – sometimes even before planting – for early identification of any weeds that posed a threat that particular growing season. Along those same lines, identifying the weeds when they were in the early growth stages, especially broadleaves, allowed for earlier applications and better overall control.
Agriculturists would walk the fields frequently, creating a microrate recipe that growers would spray every seven to 10 days anywhere from three to five times throughout the growing season. That was only part of the equation, however.
Hand labor was a given before Roundup Ready sugarbeets to eradicate weeds missed by microrate applications. “I don’t think we had a single acre we didn’t cover with hand labor in those days,” said Nate Hultgren of Hultgren Farms near Willmar in southern Minnesota. “On top of that, I drove cultivator during those years. I would cultivate those beets three times a year.” Between the three methods of weed control - spraying, cultivating, and hand weeding - a lot more detail and precision had to go into each pass no matter the method.
Prior to Roundup, weed control was the number one concern most years for sugarbeet growers across the country. According to the Survey of Weed Control and Production Practices on Sugarbeet in Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota reports from 1990 to 2007, weeds were the number one growing challenge for approximately 45% of producers. The same was seen in Idaho and eastern Oregon as well, says Professor of Weed Science and University of Idaho Extension Specialist, Don Morishita. “Like most sugarbeet growing areas, because of our dry climate and low humidity, it just made it that much harder for these post-emergent herbicides to work,” he said.
Feelings Heading into the 2008 Sugarbeet Growing Season
Despite being brand new to the sugarbeet industry, Roundup Ready beet seed was widely accepted by growers across the country. Growers had seen the impacts Roundup had on other crops such as corn, soybeans and canola, and were eager to have Roundup Ready technology available for sugarbeets.
“We didn’t have any concern going into Roundup Ready beets right away,” said Hultgren. “We’ve always been a farm that has embraced biotech. We had worked with Roundup Ready soybeans before that and had seen its success, plus resistance wasn’t even a word we used in agriculture back then, so we were really excited for Roundup Ready beets.”
In the Amalgamated region, Morishita recalls there was some concern for growers entering their first Roundup Ready sugarbeet season. The concern didn’t resonate with the glyphosate itself, but with tank mixing the glyphosate with Outlook® and injuring the beets. “After a year or two, I never really heard of anybody talking about Outlook injuring the beets,” said Morishita. “But that was really the only hesitation the farmers out here had.”
Immediate Effects of Roundup
Once Roundup Ready sugarbeets were planted nationwide in 2008, the industry was instantly revolutionized. “The crop safety was unbelievable,” said North Dakota State University / University of Minnesota Extension Sugarbeet Weed Specialist, Tom Peters said. What made Roundup’s crop safety to sugarbeets so impressive was the fact that weed control before Roundup meant injuring the sugarbeets with each pass of the traditional herbicides and setting back the crop.
“When I do experiments, especially with the soil-applied herbicides, I see a little bit of variability,” said Peters. “That variability doesn’t exist with Roundup. That’s how revolutionary it was in sugarbeets.”
Along with superior crop safety, another immediate benefit Roundup provided to sugarbeet growers was broad spectrum control. Historically, sugarbeet herbicides tended to be weed-specific. Roundup also gave more flexibility to growers when it came time to spray. There was always a fear for growers that if the weeds were to get too big, they would not be able to control them. “That fear went away overnight with Roundup,” Peters said. “It provided uniform results no matter if the conditions were too hot, wet or dry.”
While Roundup hasn’t directly increased tonnage, yield benefits have still been seen as a result of the techonology. “Being that we don’t use the conventional herbicides as much, we don’t injure the beets as much as we used to. With each pass of a conventional herbicide, we would set the beets back three, maybe four times a season. You could probably lose about 10 days of your growing season just by stunting the beets, which in turn gave up at least a couple of ton to our yield at the end of the season. With Roundup, all of that went away,” said Steve Moen, who raises sugarbeets near Alvarado, Minn.
Moen’s operation is located at the northern end of the Red River Valley, where they have seen very wet conditions for the last handful of years. “Back in the conventional days, it seemed as though the weather patterns treated us more kindly, generally. You could go out and do your timely spraying. Now in hindsight, I can say thank God for Roundup because we have been in such a bad weather pattern in our area over the last six years. I don’t know how we would ever been able to apply our microrates. We’ve had times over the past couple years when we couldn’t even get out to spray our Roundup for a month and a half. The fields were horrible, but I couldn’t imagine how bad things would have been with conventionals. Roundup has been a savior that way,” said Moen.
Roundup’s Future in the Sugarbeet Industry
It’s no secret that certain weeds have developed tolerance or even resistance to Roundup over the years. “I still think Roundup has a good future, but it’s not a solution, it’s a tool,” said Peters, meaning that Roundup should be just one facet of a complete arsenal of weed management practices. As great as Roundup had been to not only sugarbeets, but the entire agriculture industry, it does has its downsides. Given how relatively inexpensive and effective Roundup is compared to other herbicides, it has kept companies from spending the time and resources to develop new technologies. “As a result, we are relying on a lot older herbicides and Roundup. We don’t have any new sugarbeet herbicides in the pipeline,” said Peters. “If we were to have a trainwreck where our chloroacetamide herbicides wouldn’t work on waterhemp, the doom and gloom in me would say it might wreck our entire industry. Or it could be kochia. In many respects, we are operating on borrowed time.”
To ensure Roundup’s future and longevity in sugarbeets, Morishita says growers have to consider their use of Roundup in all crops they raise. Herbicides with different modes of actions and different practices, be it cultural or mechanical, should be considered in other crops within a grower’s rotation as well as non-crop areas that require weed control. “It’s a community effort,” said Morishita. “Everybody has to work together to stay on top of these weeds.” If one farmer is doing an excellent job with his weed resistance management and his neighbor isn’t, all that effort into diversifying his weed control program can all be for not. “These weeds aren’t going to stay within the borders of a farm,” continued Morishita. “Especially with weeds like kochia.”
A policy that Hultgren has implemented into his operation is making sure no Roundup is applied in his corn and bean rotations. “We are using Liberty® in the soybeans and even some conventional corn just to stay away from Roundup anytime we can,” he said. “Hopefully that will give us more effectiveness in the sugarbeets. We’ve been trying to management that resistance in every aspect of our rotation.”
If farmers are known for anything, it’s stewardship and conservation. It has and will continue to require a collective effort among producers across the country to ensure Roundup’s effectiveness and longevity for generations to come. Roundup has provided better weed control for growers, which in turn, has led to less harmful chemicals being applied, less passes in the field, and many more cost-friendly, environmentally beneficial impacts.
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower