“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
I routinely have to dispatch this advice (or any number of variations) to my four-year-old son in response to the many questions he asks throughout the course of a day.
“Can I put my meat into my glass of milk?”
“Can we build a moving drawbridge to the hay fort for the barn cats?”
“Can I hook a bungee cord up to the dog and my sister?”
“Can I put orange juice on my cereal?”
“Can I put orange juice on my waffle?”
“Can I eat this play dough?”
“Can I get permanent markers out of mommy’s cabinet?”
“Can I take my toy combine to church?”
“Can I wear my tractor shirt to church?”
“Can I ride the sheep dog?”
“Can I ride the ram?”
This list questions could go on for several pages, but you get the point. There are plenty of things that we can do, though there are often numerous reasons that we should not do them. Of course, every action has a reaction and the ultimate decision to do something or not should consider the benefits and all of the potential implications. This rule of thumb has some important implications for this planting season.
Today’s row crop farmers have unprecedented technology and tools to rely upon for maximizing the productivity of their farms. In some cases, technology can make the difference between success and failure of the crop. But in other cases, the over use of technology can reduce profitability and even be harmful. It is important to balance technology use and stewardship to maximize the huge investment in crop production and minimize the potential downside. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
This may be particularly true for controlling the pests. Seed treatments, biotechnology and insecticides are great, perfectly legal and acceptable tools, but are they being over used?
“Killing every insect is a bad business decision. For every insect we kill, there are many insects that are helping us,” said Jon Lundgren, a USDA NRCS researcher from South Dakota who recently spoke at the Conservation Tillage Conference in Ada. “Use biological controls, plant resistance and management changes to control insects and then if those don’t work, we have the tool of insecticides.”
This concept of integrated pest management is certainly one that farmers understand, but the easy “insurance” of insecticide seed treatments and Bt corn traits for controlling corn borer and rootworm has some again wondering if the magnitude of the problem warrants such tactics.
Lundgren said that insecticide seed treatments rarely boost yields and can end up being more costly than beneficial.
“You invest in seed treatments before you even plant and it is all part of rising insecticide use around the country,” he said.
Bt crops, of course, are an important tool, but can also include some challenges.
“Bt crops are a lot safer than insecticides and they are easier to use. They are extremely effective against target pests and they can facilitate no-till and improved conservation practices. But there is no silver bullet for pests and you pay for the expensive technology whether the pests are there or not,” Lundgren said. “In assessments of entomologists around the country, they have found that Bt worked and it worked really well. We can’t find levels of the target pests in the fields. This means a lot of guys can start reaping the benefits of this technology by not planting Bt corn. Bt corn is planted on 80% of the acres in the U.S., and there are problems with resistance in rootworms spreading across the country.”
To further complicate the decision, there are some Bt traits in corn (Viptera and Duracade) that are not approved for export to some countries (see related information on pages and ), that could cause significant headaches for U.S. agricultural trade if they find their way overseas.
“Do we really need to be planting some of these traits in Ohio?” asks Les Imboden, with the Ohio Corn Marketing Board and the U.S. Grains Council. “In some situations there is a need for this technology and some guys in Ohio will want to try this, but we need to understand the implications of planting some of these traits.”
As alternatives to seed treatments, insecticides and Bt crops, Lundgren suggests increasing field plant diversity with cover crops and strategic plantings in the field margins and reducing tillage to promote increased soil health. Such strategies can be environmentally beneficial, save money and succeed in preserving the technology’s usefulness for situations when it is really needed.
“Natural enemies save farmers billions of dollars a year. We need to get out of their way by reducing disturbances and increasing diversity. We create our pest problems. When we till the earth we are chasing away all of the insects. Then we come in with acres of a single plant species, Mother Nature tries to tip the scales back in her favor,” Lundgren said. “We need to use insecticides when they are a needed, not just as a knee jerk reaction. Whenever we try to replace Mother Nature with technology, Mother Nature turns around and kicks us in the crotch.”
And, it should also be noted that those who repeatedly do the things they can do, even when they shouldn’t do them, will likely have a shorter list of what they can do in the future. For an observable frame of reference, just try hooking a bungee cord up to an excited dog and your sister and see what happens.