To understand how Australian farmers handle herbicide resistance, it’s useful to know about the Millennium Drought. The drought stretched over a decade and tested farmers’ mettle.
But they emerged from those dry years with heightened confidence, says Brad Collis, editor of Ground Cover. “The industry’s come through it in very resilient frame.”
Collis credits agriculture’s survival to research, and the adoption and adaptation of that research to farms. People stopped looking for silver bullets and started making incremental changes that would maximize every rain drop, he says. And there was more acknowledgment that growing a crop was now more complex. Farmers now have “a raft of expert advisors,” Collis says.
The Australian ag industry has also made extraordinary gains in plant water-use efficiency, Collis adds. “It’s a revolution, really, what’s taken place.”
That trial by fire has solidified farmers’ respect for science and for the grower groups that share knowledge and practices. It turns out people’s mindsets are as important as anything else when it comes to tackling herbicide resistance.
Researchers have created a situation where “there is no stigma attached in having herbicide resistance in weed populations on your property,” says Collis. “So people report it immediately. And that’s really important if you’re going to get on top of this.”
Collis says they’ve done this through good communication and extension work.
“You might have a national research project, but when you localize the extension, it becomes more of a local community issue to address,” he says. People are more responsive when it’s cast in those terms, he adds.
Stuart McLaverty, who manages Bayer CropScience’s Broadacre, rice and seed treatment portfolio, agrees that herbicide resistance on the farm is not the mark of a bad farmer. In practice, he says it probably means a farmer has been doing many of the right things, such as minimum tillage and stubble retention.
“But perhaps between you and your adviser, you’ve not been thinking about rotation of mode of action and other things,” McLaverty says.
How Australian ag publications frame herbicide resistance is important, too. Ian Paterson, editor of Rural Business, says he’s used many positive testimonials from farmers who are successfully managing resistance on their farms.
But he balances positive stories with warnings from well-known researchers and farm organizations, he says.
“I think if it just comes across as the government telling them, ‘This is a disaster heading your way and it’s your fault’ then I think they’ll just get their backs up and get pissed off with us,” says Paterson. The key is to show economically-viable solutions, he adds.
Herbicide resistance top of mind
Farmers in western Australia went into total cropping and total reliance on herbicides earlier than the rest of the country, Collis says. Herbicide resistance emerged there quickly. People didn’t realize what was going on immediately.
But then the science explained what was happening, and farmers’ experiences verified it, he says. Other farmers had the advantage of observing the severity and cost of herbicide resistance in the west, Collis adds.
The reality is that the ag industry still faces some big challenges in the herbicide resistance battle. There aren’t new modes of action in the pipeline, Paterson says. It’s difficult to bring in new products for crops that don’t have huge production, he adds. And while everyone is looking for different ways to control weeds, they can’t do anything that would destroy the soil profile or lose subsoil moisture, he says.
But keeping farmers’ attention focused on herbicide resistance isn’t an issue, says Lloyd O’Connell, editor of Australian Grain. They need to survive on small margins over big acres, he says. If they don’t do things efficiently they’re out the back door, he adds.
“Financial survival is a wonderful means of keeping your focus,” says O’Connell.