No matter where in the world, when a farmer plants a seed, pests are sure to follow.
Weeds compete with plants for often-limited water and soil nutrients. Sometimes weeds grow so fast and tall that they first choke the farmer’s crop, and a few weeks later, some can grow above it, shading the sunlight from reaching farmer’s cash crop and dooming it to failure.
Insects often much prefer the uniform, tasty, and nutrient-laden crops out in a farmer’s field to the mish-mash of plants, shrubs, and trees in wild areas. They munch, and suck, and nibble at roots, sapping the lifeblood from plants.
Viral and microbial pathogens infect farm crops with a diversity of rusts, molds, and growths, competing for nutrients and reducing both yields and crop quality. Especially on farms in wet, humid, hot regions, pest problems come by the bushel. They thrive because of all the tasty, nutrient-rich plant matter there for the picking.
So, over the last several centuries, human beings have come up with all sorts of ways to “manage” pests. By “manage,” we mean keeping pest numbers down enough to avoid economically unmanageable loss of income or food for survival. If farmers gained the ability to kill all pests, life on earth would cease to exist as we know it.
One way to think about pest management is picture a toolbox: the more tools, and the greater diversity in how they work to nudge pest populations downward, the more resilient the pest management systems that farmers can cobble together. Combining multiple tools and tactics to manage pests is the goal of Diversified Pest Management (DPM). We’ve harvested some of the best science around the effectiveness of diversified pest management practices in our bibliography here.
Big Problems in the Heartland
But since the 1970s, most farmers in the Heartland have been reaching for only one tool, herbicides. Increasingly heavy reliance on herbicides over the years progressively undermined their effectiveness, because of the emergence and spread of resistant weeds.
In the 1960s and 1970s most corn and soybean fields in the Heartland required only a single application of one herbicide. Today, the typical range in the number of herbicide applications on corn and soybeans in the Heartland is 5 to 6. A total of 3-4 different herbicides are required to stay ahead of the spread of resistant weeds.
That is a huge increase — just ask the farmers spraying, and paying more for herbicides that work less and less well.
But through use of a diverse array of tools such as cover crops, mechanical weed control, crop rotations, and biological controls, farmers can manage pests on the farm with few, if any, pesticides.
Want to learn more?
Check out all the great resources at GROW, a website dedicated to sharing research and tools in support of Integrated Weed Management. Their Weed Management Toolbox has tons of info about the various tools available to farmers besides herbicides.
Another great resource is the IPM Institute, founded by HHRA board member Tom Green. Their Pesticide Risk Tool helps farmers choose less-harmful products, and they have a page dedicated to sharing IPM resources at the federal and state level.
Farmers do have options! Click on any image below to view a gallery of pest management solutions.