Roundup Ready alfalfa is well worth the tech fee to Steve and Scott Rice if it rids them of waterhemp. The Wilsonville, NE, brothers have been waiting for the transgenic crop for years because waterhemp has reduced whole cuttings of their prime dairy hay to poor grinding quality.
“We spend a lot of money on chemicals every year and, unfortunately, waterhemp is the only weed that we can't control. It's resistant to any of the other chemicals we have,” says Steve Rice.
“It's so frustrating to have a profitable crop and then, all of a sudden, you're looking at some really weedy bales,” he adds. To beat the problem weed, they planted 115 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa this past fall.
Waterhemp took over the crop under one pivot on the Rice acreage after a 1995 hailstorm stripped the field. Since then, the brothers have sprayed to the max — four full-rate applications of herbicide a year that controlled other weeds but only, at times, suppressed the spreading waterhemp.
“It generally shows up in the third, fourth and fifth crops. On that one pivot, we lost third, fourth and fifth crops to the weed (in 2005), going from $120/ton prime dairy-quality alfalfa to $35/ton grinding hay,” Rice says. “We have a field we didn't even cut on fifth crop because of the weeds.”
Waterhemp can shoot up to 5' tall within 30 days, and its stem base can be as big as a pop can, he says. “So a big percentage of the acreage is weed, and not a palatable one. If this Roundup Ready will work for us, I'm going to be very, very thrilled to have clean alfalfa again.”
Some people, including Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska forage specialist, worry that growers will plant Roundup Ready alfalfa where they don't need to, or for the wrong reasons. “I have a tendency to discourage people from using Roundup Ready varieties just because they're easier to control weeds with,” says Anderson.
“I hope people don't think that Roundup Ready alfalfa solves all of their problems. There are many weed problems that can be solved with better management and tools other than just Roundup.”
Waterhemp, however, “takes a very observant and planned weed control program and a little bit of luck for the application timing to coincide with the right harvest interval,” he says. It's one problem that can justify the cost of Roundup Ready alfalfa, he adds.
Other problem weeds that may lose out where Roundup Ready alfalfa is established include dandelion, curly dock and bindweed. “On a lot of irrigated fields in Nebraska, especially on sandy soils, we find bluegrass is a real problem weed. So in these kinds of specific situations, the Roundup Ready trait does offer options that I think many people may be interested in taking advantage of.”
For the Rice brothers, Roundup Ready alfalfa means at least one fewer application per year. “We were spending upwards of $70/acre (including custom application costs) and not getting control. We're still going to have $30-45/acre in applications of Roundup, but we'll have prime, clean hay that we can sell at a premium,” Rice says. They're paying $350/bag of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, which includes the tech fee.
The brothers raise around 800 acres of irrigated alfalfa and truck 4,000 tons of hay per year to several states. Their seeding rate is 20 lbs/acre and they keep stands from six to eight years. Next fall they hope to establish another 200 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa and rotate it into the worst-hit areas over the next four to five years.
“I'm not going to go exclusively to Roundup Ready alfalfa, because I think I can still control some of these weeds without it. But it's sure going to cross my mind every time I plant whether or not I feel I can control the weeds without it. If I can't, I'll definitely plant it,” says Rice.
“A lot of people ask, ‘How in the world can you pay $7/lb for alfalfa seed?’ I say it only takes one clean cutting of dairy-quality alfalfa and I've paid for that seed. The rest of it's all gravy.”
For further reading on Roundup Ready alfalfa, visit:
Judge Says USDA Erred On Roundup Ready Alfalfa
Monsanto Asks To Intervene In Lawsuit
Return Roundup Ready Alfalfa Seed
Injunction Jolts Roundup Ready Alfalfa
RR Court Injunction May Squeeze Alfalfa Seed Supply