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IFB District 12 Director February Douglas County Agriculture update

By Larry Dallas 
February has been a slow month for Douglas County Agriculture with the disagreeable weather. There has been a chance to haul grain on frozen ground. Most analysts think there is not a lot of grain left in farmer’s hands. The higher prices have flushed most of it out. We are hanging on to some corn and soybeans just to see how the markets play out. 

Demand for our commodities remains strong. After a dry growing season, a lot of South America is experiencing harvest delaying rain. Brazilian soybeans are not available for export as quickly as in most years and the planting of their second crop of corn is slowed too. Ocean freight rates have jumped. US grain loaded in our Pacific Northwest is much closer to Asian markets than Brazil’s big port of Santos. It is also readily available because of our incomparable transportation system. 

Livestock farmers deserve a tip of our hats in weather like we have experienced the last couple of weeks. I worked on books or tinkered in the shop on those zero temperature days. Livestock producers must tend to their animals no matter what the conditions are. Providing feed and freshwater can be an all-day struggle on a snowy, windy day. 

We have been busy, however. The State of Illinois now requires farmers that handle the commonly used nitrogen fertilizer anhydrous ammonia to be certified. I have taken that training online and have passed the test. I will need to do that again in three years. My brother’s pesticide applicator license is expiring, and he took online training for the test. The US EPA administers the test, and it is a more serious affair. It has been compared to a proctored online test at the University of Illinois. After experiencing computer problems, David is taking an in-person test at Arthur. 

The pesticide applicator license must be renewed every three years as well and is required to purchase restricted use pesticides. The test includes understanding pesticide labels and application rates. Like so many things, there are phone apps to do the figuring we did longhand the first time I took the test. You still do it longhand for the test. 

We are planning our herbicide program for the coming crop year. I know I have talked about this in past columns. Many herbicides specifically kill grasses or broadleaf weeds, but not crop species. Some are non-specific, killing any plant and can only be applied to plants genetically modified to tolerate them. We consider the crop we are planting, the weeds we need to kill and, more than likely, the crop we want to plant next year along with the herbicides used last year. Good records are invaluable. 

I have participated in two meetings of a US EPA Pesticide Resistance Management Working Group. My experience on the Illinois Farm Bureau Environmental Advisory Team got me named to that working group. Weeds figure out how to defeat herbicides and insects can develop resistance to insecticides. The working group hopes to come up with methods to lengthen the useful life of the pesticides that help us grow food efficiently. These might involve changing cultural practices or modifying farmer attitudes.

The working group contains government and university types, pesticide manufacturers, and just one full-time farmer. It is something I am taking seriously. In the past, we could count on new herbicide classes to help in weed control. There are not any of those on the horizon. What the EPA calls plant-incorporated proteins to kill insect pests of corn are expensive to develop. We want those to keep their effectiveness for years to come. 

Our largest export market for corn is Mexico. They recently announced they will phase out imports of genetically modified corn. Mexico uses white corn for food and grows most of that domestically. Imported yellow corn is used for animal feed. About 90 percent of the US corn crop is genetically modified and would fall under this phase-out. 

One of Mexico’s farm organizations plans a lawsuit to stop this. Our markets took this news in stride with no big price drop. A couple of years ago, Mexico threatened to stop imports of US corn. That was short-lived because of the transportation advantage of railing corn out of the US into Mexico. Any other source of corn would require ocean freight. Also, the economic advantages of growing GMO corn make it economically advantageous everywhere, not just in our country. It would be hard for Mexico to find something around 68 million bushels of organic corn.

Mexico is also going to outlaw the importation of glyphosate or Roundup herbicide. Roundup was the first non-selective herbicide plants were engineered to tolerate. The herbicide and the plants that tolerate it have been tested repeatedly for safety to both humans and the environment. When used according to the label, a legal document, no problems are found. 

The fact that a herbicide label is a legal document is an important distinction. We are legally bound to use the proper rate of a herbicide and to apply it under the required conditions and crop plant size. Deviation from that could result in the farmer having the previously mentioned applicator’s license pulled by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. We do not use our plant pesticides casually. 

This winter there have been many virtual meetings and discussions about carbon sequestration. If carbon dioxide is contributing to climate change, the reasoning is that we should store that carbon out of the atmosphere. Wikipedia says trees are the best way to store carbon, but we think that agriculture is efficient at sequestering carbon in the soil. The biomass from a cornfield is sizable. Several companies are looking into paying farmers for the carbon they put in the soil.

Those payments are hard to find so far. There are some pilot programs that deal with small numbers of producers. Measuring the levels of carbon already present in the soil and at what rate it can be accumulated are still open to discussion. One article I saw said payments should be $16 an acre. It did not say what the requirements would be. The article also said modern agriculture strips carbon from the soil. That may have been true at one time. Modern methods of leaving plant residue on the soil are good at building soil carbon. 

Thank you for reading about Douglas County agriculture this month.

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