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Why a pre-emergent herbicide is a good investment

As the son of a Nebraska farmer, Shawn Hock saw first-hand the challenges his father faced in controlling weeds. It’s also why he decided to pursue a Masters in Weed Science from the University of Nebraska.

“In 1998, I went off to college to learn how to control weeds for my dad,” says Hock, the U.S. Corn Herbicide Product Lead for Syngenta. “Today, the pressure from weeds is even greater than it was back then. As we go forward, it’s time to rethink some of the weed control strategies, especially as it relates to fertilizer investment.”

Escalating Fertilizer Prices

This past year the global demand for fertilizer outpaced supply, causing unprecedented price spikes in nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. 

“Unlike soybeans, corn does not fix nitrogen and requires large amounts (of nitrogen) to grow and yield,” Hock says, adding that recommended application rates used to be 1.2 pounds of nitrogen per bushel expected but are now around 0.8.

Phosphorous is also important for stimulating root and shoot growth and promoting seedling growth. Because it helps increase disease resistance and water stress tolerance, potassium is also key to corn’s growth.

“While fertilizer prices went from about $100 per acre in 2020 to upwards of $300 in 2022, a lot of farmers were able to position themselves between those two figures. According to some ag economists, the end budget for fertilizer was about $240 an acre this year,” Hock says. “In the last three months, there has been a reprieve in those elevated prices. However, in the last few days, prices have started to climb back up.”

In 2023, fertilizer prices are predicted to be about $246 per acre, according to the University of Illinois.

“A lot of the same elements exist today as last year. The war in Ukraine is ongoing. Energy prices are not trending down now; they're going up. There is a diesel fuel shortage. The river system in the U.S. is not looking good, so more things are being transported by rail or truck than what has traditionally been done,” he says. “Growers should be watching all these things and trying to position themselves the best they can.”

What Weeds Consume

As producers prepare for the 2023 growing season, Hock wants the message to be about using fertilizer more efficiently, so they have a better return on investment on that input. The first step, he believes, is to eliminate early season weed competition from the equation. We all know weeds compete for light, water, nutrients, and space, and Hock says a recent study reveals just how demanding weeds can be.

“We did a study to see how much nitrogen weeds consume across 20 locations,” he says. “We found that 2- to 4-inch weeds consume about 13.5 pounds of nitrogen, as well as around 0.85 pounds of phosphorous and about 16.8 pounds of potassium. To put that in perspective, you could produce over 16 bushels of corn with the amount of nitrogen being taken by those weeds.”

If you look at it from the perspective of how much those fertilizers are worth, Hock says you’re losing about $24 per acre in nutrients when 2 to 4-inch weeds are present. “Investing that money in a strong, pre-emergent residual herbicide would pay dividends,” he says, adding that not many producers across the Corn Belt are making this application.

“If we can encourage and help spread the idea of investing in a pre-emergent residual herbicide that is effective and safe, we can help growers get more out of their fertilizer, grow higher yields, and help answer some of the challenges the world is demanding of us today,” Hock says. “Yet, it's not always easy to get a producer to make that extra investment, but it's something we can help with.”

For example, he says products like Acuron, which can be applied in a split-shot application with a portion of the rate applied pre-emergence, is uniquely positioned to help growers improve their fertilizer use efficiency by increasing yield. Here’s why.

  1. Powerful weed control. “It controls broad spectrum weeds very effectively,” he says.
  2. Long-lasting residual. “Once applied as a pre-emergent, it works longer than other herbicides to keep your fields clean,” Hock says.
  3. Proven crop safety. “Formulation matters, and not every active ingredient in the marketplace is safe for that developing corn plant. They can cause injury you may not observe,” he says.

Acuron contains four active ingredients, including bicyclopyrone, and three sites of action for effective, consistent control of tough weeds, including resistant weeds. “When applied as a pre-emergent and at full label rates, our on-farm trials have shown that producers can gain five to 15 more bushels an acre because it controls tough, yield-robbing weeds better,” Hock says. 

As he looks ahead to 2023, Hock says producers he’s spoken with are extremely worried about what weed control is going to look like because of high input costs this year.

“Weeds have undoubtedly increased in prevalence. In the market research we did last year, 40% of corn growers said they were having difficulty controlling weeds like waterhemp and Palmer amaranth,” he says. “We are always looking at new ways to put active ingredients together to get ahead of weeds. As we continue to bring new concepts to market, residual weed control principles, and integrated weed management strategies are important.”

Yet, Hock notes that there is a gap in the herbicide space in the next few years as products make their way through to the market. “It’s a very complex system that takes about 10 to 12 years. These weeds are evolving faster than we can come out with new products,” he says. “That will be a challenge we will have to overcome, but there are certainly good opportunities on the horizon.”

Hock says Syngenta is planning to announce an exciting new herbicide concept in March 2023 at Commodity Classic.

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