Volunteer wheat needs action

The year is winding down and farmers are finishing up with the last acres of soybeans and milo. The recent rain and light snow brought field work to a standstill. Some farmers used this occasion to meet in the local coffee shops and catch up on the latest gossip that makes the rounds.

One farmer friend approached me, noting his roadside observations about some fields that still had growing stands of volunteer wheat. He expressed concern about the potential harmful effects to emerging nearby stands of newly planted wheat from the diseased volunteer wheat.

Volunteer wheat comes from seed left in the field from the previous harvest. After germinating and growing in the summer?s heat, it becomes infested with insects that are hosts to viruses that are toxic to newly emerged stands of wheat, severely reducing, if not completely destroying their potential to reproduce at harvest.

My friend asked what can be done about this dilemma. Since it is not considered a noxious weed, the county has no enforcement authority.

This is a sensitive issue for farmers. Not wanting to alienate neighboring farmers, the preferred response is to do nothing at all, hoping disease will not fly in on the wings of insects from across the property lines and in the path of prevailing winds.

This is generally a futile response. Hope springs eternal, but it?s much like praying for a downpour in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The prayers will remain unanswered.

The bugs leave their diseased host plants to feed on healthier plants. The bugs leave the virus on healthy plants. The bugs die. In the spring, wheat emerging from dormancy begins to joint, and within a matter of days, the infected wheat begins to show symptoms of Barley Yellow Dwarf disease or Wheat Streak Mosaic.

A second option for farmers is to contact the neighboring farmer or landowner and respectfully share his or her concern about the impending problem.

In today?s market, even with current lower prices of $6 per bushel, even a 50 percent decline in yields represents a substantial loss of revenue. Is it too much to assume this potential damage to the economic welfare of one?s neighbor is motivation enough to spur someone into action? It depends.

This option may or may not be successful, depending on several factors. Are the neighbors good friends and do they respect each other?s opinion? Is the neighbor familiar with potential damaging effects of BYD and WSM on wheat yields? Is he aware of the recommended best management practices for its control? Why are these practices not being followed?

Generally, a farmer who grazes livestock on wheat pasture sees the issue from a different vantage point. He or she sees the economic advantage of not having to pay for seeding a crop for grazing and thereby is able to put some weight on cattle for next to nothing.

Each year, there are a number of fields within our county where volunteer wheat is left to grow and becomes infected with these disease carrying insects. Heavy grazing is not a valid control measure. The damage is already done by the time the wheat is grazed out in late fall and early winter.

The mention of risking economic damage on one?s neighbor might be seen as an unfair limitation on his or her rights to the free use of the property. Yet, laws exist on the books restricting a farmers? activity on their own land, especially if it can be proven that drift from application of a herbicide damages a neighbor?s cotton crop, for example.

Anecdotal evidence, not to mention my own personal experience of watching my wheat suffer at the hands of a neighbor?s diseased volunteer, suggests we are drifting closer (no pun intended) to the time when farmers will no longer accept the status quo. There is too much money invested in our crops to merely ?let it slide? without finding a way to address the issue at hand.

It is time to recognize and respect those farmers who utilize best management practices and control pests that reduces the potential dangers of yield robbing diseases. It is also time to confront those who consistently take advantage of their neighbor?s gesture of goodwill and allow others to absorb the risks while they save a couple dollars per acre on their bottom line.

Which brings us to the less palatable option: litigation.

It?s an expensive, yet viable and potentially necessary option, and not something one should take lightly. It seems to be the only viable ?stick? in the arsenal that works when the carrot is ignored.

While on the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers board of directors, I learned of an alternative solution to this problem. While discussing policy, I brought up this topic. Several members from western Kansas responded.

?It?s easy,? they said. ?All you do, after making several friendly overtures and getting no positive response, you hire the local co-op to spray the offending tract of land. The co-op sends the farmer or landowner the bill, and that is that. It will never happen again.?

I received an affirmative nod from each board member from western Kansas.

Though we can debate the pros and cons and legality of such a strategy, it appears to effectively kill the temptation that one can gain economic advantage at the expense of the neighbors.

My desire is not to increase the tension between neighbors, but rather to consider how our decisions to ignore best management practices can effect our neighbors and their livelihood. Being a good neighbor also means doing the right thing, even if it costs something to do it.

Clearly, something needs to change.

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