Archive for the ‘GMO weeds’ Category

Getting Roundup Out of Our Farm’s Soil

February 2014 Update:  I wrote the post below in December 2011.  Since that time, my views have changed.  My 2nd sentence below – glyphosate is harmful to soil life, crops, animals – appears to be based on bad science.   And the scientific community is raising valid questions about Dr. Huber.  I remain cautious about GMOs basically because I believe this argument is very valid – that believing GM crops are innocent until proven guilty doesn’t work when the potential harm hasn’t happened yet.  And tremendous risk exists when we are overconfident with partial knowledge.

July 2016 Update:  I just re-read my post below and find it cringe-worthy.  I’m leaving the post up for now to serve as a record for myself.

Roundup (glyphosate) has been touted as an environmentally friendly herbicide that quickly breaks down in the soil.  New research shows glyphosate does not break down and has very harmful effects on soil life, our crops, and animals that eat the crops.  Our fields were planted to Roundup-Ready soybeans for about a decade before we bought the farm, so we are very interested in mitigating the effects of glyphosate and getting it completely out of our soil.  This post describes what we’ve learned so far and our plan for remediation.

Some Background

Corn farmer refills his sprayer with glyphosate.

Roundup is Monsanto’s brand of glyphosate, a plant killer (herbicide).  Monsanto genetically modified agricultural crops to make them survive applications of Roundup.  When farmers spray crop fields with Roundup, the weeds die and the crops live.  This has been a huge time-saver for farmers.  Until the recent emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds, Monsanto’s technology virtually wiped out the need for farmers to think about and labor over weeds, one of the principal farming burdens since the days of yore.  The following amounts of these U.S. crops are genetically modified organisms (GMO):  Soy (93%), cotton (93%), canola (90%), corn (87%), sugar beets (95%).  Soy, corn, sugar beets, and most of canola go directly into the U.S. food supply, whether for livestock feed or for ingredients in processed foods found in every grocery store.

Why Fret?

Dr. Huber, Emeritus Professor, Purdue

We first became alarmed at the potential hazards of Roundup and GMO crops after reading this May 2011 Acres USA interview of Dr. Huber, Professor Emeritus of Purdue University.  In early December, we attended the Acres USA Eco Farming conference and heard Dr. Huber speak.  His speech was enormously powerful.  The audience gave him a standing ovation, and everyone walked out of the room in a dumbfounded stupor.  Here’s why:

Soil Effects:  Essential Nutrients and Beneficial Soil Organisms

Most herbicides and pesticides are mineral chelators, and glyphosate is no different.  Chelators bind with minerals and make them unavailable to plants and soil life.  Glyphosate doesn’t kill plants directly.  Instead, it chelates (ties up) essential nutrients, like manganese, that plants need for their immune system to function and fend off soil-borne pathogens.  Glyphosate works by shutting down plants’ immune systems so they become completely vulnerable to pathogens and die.

Glyphosate was initially thought to break down in the soil very quickly.  Researchers thought it was gone because they couldn’t find it by itself in the soil, but now we know that it persists by binding with essential nutrients.  Soil biology does eventually degrade glyphosate, but researchers think it takes a while.  One study showed Roundup persisting in clay soils for over 20 years.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria on plant root

Glyphosate is also toxic to beneficial soil organisms.  These unfortunately include the bacteria that fix nitrogen, mycorrhyzal fungi, and earthworms.  This might explain why our soil hasn’t improved after being in pasture grass for 3 years.  We expected the soil biology to bounce back, but it just hasn’t.  Dr. Huber said farmers used to be encouraged to rotate their herbicides because if one herbicide killed off a group of soil microbes, they would have a chance to come back.  Since Roundup Ready crops hit the scene in 1996, farmers have been slamming fields with glyphosate for every year, usually multiple applications per year, for 15 years now.  This has eliminated the chance for beneficial soil critters to repopulate.

Crop Effects:  Nutrient Content and Disease

Manganese Deficiency in soybeans, Ronald J. Gehl, Michigan State University

Glyphosate’s negative soil effects show up in Roundup Ready plants.  Dr. Huber cited the results of multiple peer-reviewed studies that show nutrient comparisons of Roundup Ready corn and soy versus regular corn and soy.  Compared to normal crops, Roundup Ready crops had significantly less (up to 70% less) essential nutrients like manganese, copper and zinc. These nutrients are absolutely essential to animal and human health.

The depopulation of beneficial soil organisms is manifesting in increased plant diseases.  Death of soil organisms doesn’t leave a void.  Instead, it opens up opportunities for other soil organisms to take over.  The organisms that end up dominating the soil ecology are usually the pathogenic ones that are held in check by beneficial organisms under normal conditions.  This microbe imbalance, in addition to the loss of essential nutrients, is believed to be the cause of sharp increases in plant diseases such as Goss’s Wilt in

Goss’s Wilt hurts corn yields.

corn and Sudden Death Syndrome in soybeans.  The missing essential nutrients cuts the quality of Roundup Ready crops, and the diseases are really hurting yields.  The motto that GMO crops can feed the world is turning out to be a very false promise, to say the least.

Animal Effects:  Infertility and Spontaneous Abortion

Dr. Huber said veterinarians in the Midwest are discovering more and more fertility problems with livestock.   This is especially crippling to dairies, where cows must keep having calves in order to produce milk.  Hog farmers are also having problems.  He said vets and researchers worked together and discovered an organism that is new to science.  It is very tiny, about the size of a small virus, but researchers don’t know how to classify it.  Vets are finding this organism in livestock that have infertility and miscarriages, and they’re also finding it in high concentrations in the GMO feeds (corn, soy, cottonseed meal, etc.)  Dr. Huber said it’s likely that this organism isn’t new to nature, but perhaps it has taken advantage of an opportunity to become dominant in our GMO agriculture system.

Humans have seen an uptick in fertility problems too, along with sharp increases in extreme food allergies, asthma, autism, and behavioral disorders like ADHD.  Dr. Huber cited animal studies that showed these outcomes in livestock too.  “Sound science” would at least look at GMO feeds and foods and try to rule them out as the cause.  Unfortunately, this type of research receives no funding in the U.S.  Hopefully, this will start to change.  Dr. Huber is a true hero in my book, not just for his courage to push against the very strong government and agribusiness collusion forces, but also for his attempts to genuinely forge a partnership with the USDA on this problem.  He has met with USDA leaders, handed over all the research, and is working with the USDA to investigate these issues.  How many of us would’ve just tried to excoriate the USDA and FDA at every opportunity?  I know I would have.

Our Remediation Plan

Glyphosate remediation was a big conversation topic at the Acres USA conference.  By the end of the conference, the consensus landed on a “silver buckshot” approach.  The approach was to do everything possible to (1) rejuvenate the beneficial soil organisms that will eventually degrade glyphosate and (2) add soil amendments that can help with detoxification.  We were happy to learn that we’re already doing most of them!  Here’s our plan:

  1. Inoculate seeds with beneficial microbes such as mycorrhyzae, nitrogen-fixing bacteria for legumes, etc.
  2. Spray microbe inoculants on the fields, especially inoculants that contain pseudomona bacteria.  Pseudomona are easily wiped out by glyphosate, and some species are known to be detoxifiers.
  3. Include a microbe stimulant, such as molasses or sugar, in the spray mix.  This gives the microbes an extra leg up.
  4. Bring back tillage.  No-till farming, especially when combined with GMO crops, glyphosate, and few to no winter cover crops, tends to shut down the soil biology.  Open the soils up to counteract this effect and to wake up the microbes.
  5. Amend the soil with humates.  Humates are ancient organic matter that has decomposed as far as possible.  It’s soft coal, known as leonardite or lignite in the drilling professions.  Each microscopic humic acid molecule contains dozens of functional molecular groups and around 100 negatively charged sites that can bind with agricultural chemicals.  Humates also add black organic matter (humus) to the soil and provide a nice home for microbes.

Our tractor with rotovator and front-mounted spray tank.

I’ve posted about our practices of inoculating seeds, rotovating (tillage) and spraying a microbe inoculant with molasses, so we’ll keep doing this.  Adding humates to the soil has now moved up in priority.  We found a humate supplier at the conference, so I’ll be posting about that in the near future.

Learn More

Most of the research I mentioned above comes from my conference notes, the Acres article cited above,  and these two videos of Dr. Huber (Part 1 and Part 2).  Both are long and very informative.  At the end of Part 2, Dr. Huber closes on a positive note.  He says these deleterious effects can be turned around.  We just need to first recognize what’s going on and work to correct it.  For example, vets have been taking infertile livestock off of GMO feed, and it seems to work after about one year.  There is hope.  I sincerely hope all the research he cited is plain wrong, but if it turns out to be true, we’ll at least have the knowledge and a plan to correct the problems.


More Lessons Learned with Rotovating Sorghum Sudangrass (and a Bright Side)

Our rotovator fought the cover crop, and the cover crop won!  We grew sorghum sudan this summer on our neighbor’s fields as a green manure crop.  We rotovated it in early August to incorporate most of the crop into the topsoil.  We wanted the crop to feed the soil life and turn into organic matter.  Our goal is to move this dusty, sandy soil toward crumbly, black, “chocolate cake” soil that makes plants and animals thrive.

Rotovator Failed to Kill Sorghum Sudan

We also wanted the rotovator to kill the crop so we could plant the next cover crop of cereal rye and vetch for the winter.  We had very limited success here and still can’t tell what we did wrong with the rotovator!

Frosted sorghum sudangrass, 3 feet tall after failed rotovating

You can see the sorghum sudan in this picture taken in mid-November, about two weeks after a killing frost.  The sorghum sudan completely re-grew from the roots after rotovating and is finally starting to die from a cold snap.  Finally!

Rotovating is supposed to easily kill a crop, so we obviously did something wrong.  Perhaps the blades were not set deeply enough.  Perhaps we went too fast.  These scenarios are both perplexing though, because on the last field we set the blades to the deepest possible level, and the crop still grew back just as thick.  And the speed – we were going so slowly, I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took us to cover 20 acres.  Let’s just say days, and I won’t say how many!

I have heard that sorghum sudan easily grows back from the roots, such as after animals eat it down to the ground.  So maybe we just have to take extra steps when rotovating this crop and disturb the roots more?  We rotovated two acres of old grass pasture, and the grass died completely, no problems there.

Fluffy Soil Not Good for Planting

Another problem we need to figure out is extra fluffy soil.  The soil that the rotovator left behind was fluffed up, so much so that our boots would sink down about an inch when we stepped on it.  Turns out this does

our 7-foot rotovator

not bode well for the next crop.  We rented our county’s seed drill to plant the winter cover crop of rye and vetch about three weeks after rotovating, and it germinated very poorly.  I asked our Extension Agent for his opinion, and he said seed with poor soil contact has trouble germinating, and the 10 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Lee that we got right after planting likely made things worse.

So how do we make a good strong seedbed after rotovating?  We had the rotovator’s backboard down most of the way; maybe it should be down all the way.  Also, we can use time.  All the extra air eventually leaves the soil.  The soil needs at least 4 weeks to fully digest plowed down vegetation anyway (especially with no spraying of microbes), so we’ll just wait longer.  Our Extension Agent said our boots shouldn’t sink more than ¼ inch.  Any more than that, and the soil is probably too fluffy for drilling seed.

So far, I’m far from in love with rotovating!  It takes forever, and its performance feels like false advertising, far from the praise rotovators receive for their ability to kill plants, incorporate them, and make a nice seedbed all in one pass.  Surely it’s not too good to be true!  Hopefully it’s something we’re just missing.

Bright Side

Okay, enough of the whining!  There is a bright side.  Sorghum sudan is unrivaled among cover crops it its ability to produce biomass.  It gave us three good growths on zero added nitrogen fertilizer, and the root system below ground probably came close to mirroring the plant above ground.  We mowed twice and rotovated once, so that’s a good sloughing off of roots times three.  As the roots die and break down and form organic matter, the empty spaces will make great tunnels for earthworms.

Sorghum sudan’s other significant contribution is its amazing allelopathic (natural weed killer) effect!  During the 2010 summer season, these soybean fields were inundated with roundup resistant weeds like marestail and water hemp.  I can’t find nary a one now!  When we converted our own fields from GMO soybeans to grass pastures, we had to beat back marestail for 2 years by mowing.  Sorghum sudan is extremely helpful in this area!

Moving On…

We mowed the sorghum sudan for the last time in mid-November, as it was dying from frost.  The clippings made a good mulch for the soil.  The rye and vetch cover crop is growing well here and there, and cool-season weeds, Italian ryegrass volunteers (from previous winter cover crops) and the mulch do a good enough job of covering the soil in the other spots.  For this reason, we’re not going to replant the rye and vetch.  We plan to mow-kill the winter covers in the spring and then plant another summer cover crop like buckwheat.

Update on Roundup-Resistant Marestail

I’m a little cautious when it comes to making claims, but I’ll say it anyway – “SUCCESS!” 

We took a pasture walk yesterday, and we couldn’t find any marestail.  In this post I detailed our efforts in getting rid of this nasty but impressive weed.  Our fields were infested with it last year, especially in areas where it had no grass competition.  We mowed four times last summer (a very wet summer) and two times this summer (a very hot and dry summer).  We’ve done nothing else but spread compost on about two acres so far.  Marestail is nowhere to be seen on any of our fields.   

Because marestail has very shallow roots, I’m sure this summer’s drought helped to eradicate it (even though it’s flourishing in our neighbor’s GMO soybean field- maybe it’s not just resistant to round up, but loves it?).  Regardless, we’re so happy to have found a chemical-free way to off this weed.  I doubt soybean farmers have the cash flow to take their marestail-infested fields out of production, but I bet if they did for just one year most of the marestail would be gone.  They could thickly seed a very competitive plant, like American sweet clover, and mow for one year.  The sweet clover could out-compete the marestail for sunlight and nutrients, and the bush hog would take care of the rest.    This is exactly what we’re going to try on our neighbor’s fields.  Our neighbor has invited us to convert his fields to pasture.  They’re tired of looking at weed-infested, gnarly soybean fields.  We’ll keep the updates coming.

GMO Aftermath on the Farm

You may have heard grumblings about Monsanto and genetically-modified organism (GMO) foods, but you probably haven’t heard much about the farms that grow GMO crops. Several reports, including this recent NYTimes article, are revealing farmer’s battles with SUPERWEEDS. On our farm, we’re fighting them too. We have found a way to win, but the strategy involves getting out of the industrial farming system altogether…

Some background: Roundup Ready crops have been genetically modified to not die from the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). The farmer can spray Roundup to kill all weed competitors, plant the crop seed, and can spray Roundup again later to kill any emerging weeds. Tilling is not needed for planting or weeding. This is great for mitigating soil erosion, which is so critical for the Bay. However, the soil is a living community, and it WANTS to be protected and covered so it won’t blow away. Weeds will come up again and again to cover and protect the soil, hence the need for Roundup.

Conyza Canadensis

Before we owned our farm, the land was leased to a farmer who planted Round-up Ready soybeans for the past several years. Marestail (Conyza Canadensis) was the first effect of GMO crops we noticed.

Marestail is now known as a “superweed” because of its documented resistance to Roundup (glyphosate). This means it has adapted on its own to survive being sprayed with Roundup. This is striking!  Within 10 years, marestail evolved on its own to survive a killer spray. How many years and how many $hundreds of millions did Monsanto require to get soybean plants to do this? Nature, including wicked marestail, is pretty incredible!

One of our neighbor’s fields was so infested with marestail last summer, I don’t know if it was worth the farmer’s time and diesel to harvest the soybeans. Marestail (and I believe waterhemp also) outstretched the soybeans and hogged sunlight and I’m sure, most nutrients in the soil. This has got to translate into decreased soybean yields, which costs farmers dearly. Without new farming tactics, marestail could effectively take over crop fields.

Marestail plant surviving among soybean seedlings after herbicide application has killed the growing point. Note the extensive branching and multiple growing points.

So what are the options for dealing with this superweed?
1. Switch to a more potent herbicide. Unfortunately, this is what many are doing. This Monsanto brochure encourages growers to “start clean and control weeds early” (spray before you plant to achieve that desired moonscape appearance), to “use Roundup Ready Technology as your foundation” (don’t give up on Roundup!) and to “add other herbicides and cultural practices where appropriate” (hey, marestail is not (YET) resistant to 2,4-D or flumioxazin or cloransulam, so let’s spray those too.) Toxic chemicals with your soy protein isolate, anyone?

2. Hand-weeding. Marestail’s kryptonite is its own roots! It doesn’t have a taproot, so it will come out of the ground real easy. But, if you’re aware of the “get big or get out” movement in farming during the past 40 years, you know this option is not doable. One farmer might plant 500 acres in soybeans. The labor costs would be astronomical for acreages this size.

3. Stop no-tilling. No-till practices + large acreages = Roundup Ready or other such herbicide-resistant GMO crops. Over time, Roundup Ready = superweeds. So, why don’t we just stop no-tilling and go back to plowing? In nature, there’s always a tradeoff. If we plow, we get erosion. Erosion means more polluted waterways and even further death to the Bay. So which do we want, toxic chemicals and superweeds or erosion of the last millimeter of topsoil we have?

Let’s think differently. What if the problem isn’t superweeds or herbicides? What if they are only symptoms? I believe this is the case. The real problem = HUGE ACREAGES OF MONOCROPS. Let’s scrap this entire set-up!

We have fought marestail by converting former soybean fields to pasture. No chemicals, no plowing.  Marestail responds to competition (from densely planted grass seed) and to some aggressive mowing. We planted a pasture grass mix on our farm in fall 2008 using a no-till drill. It was our first go at planting, so we missed several spots, leaving empty rows about a foot wide up and down our fields. Marestail thrives in these non-grass rows, but not where the grass is thick.

In summer 2009, we mowed as soon as we saw the marestail getting tall, about every 3 or 4 weeks. We were really disappointed to see its other superpower–it loves to branch at the point where it’s been clipped! It flowers and sets seed on the short branches, but the seedheads are much smaller than those that are produced by tall mature plants.

So, instead of fighting nature with Roundup, how about we fight nature with nature? We can divert acre after acre of soybeans destined for feedlots and plant these acres in grass instead. By rotationally grazing animals for nutritious grass-fed beef and lamb, the soil will repair itself naturally (no erosion, more and more topsoil) and the Marestail will be stomped to the ground.

Perhaps mega farms of monocrops with no livestock are not a good way to farm in the long term. Let’s ditch the ecological monocrop moonscapes and get back to small, diversified farms—a place and livelihood that comes to mind when we hear the word “farm”.

What can YOU do?
Farmers respond to demand. Each of your food dollars is a vote. Will your food dollars demand industrial feedlot beef or soy milk (if it’s not organic, it’s GMO), or will they demand grass-fed meats and support small, topsoil-building farms?
Learn the truth about GMO foods: