Production Blog

Walk This Way

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Bean walker Ziak Ireland celebrates his victory over a whopper waterhemp plant found in a soybean field near Mt. Zion, Illinois. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

MT ZION, Ill. (DTN) -- The Meridian High School football coach canceled practice last Saturday morning. For a handful of teenage boys, it opened up an opportunity to exercise a bit more sweat equity in a central Illinois soybean field.

Waterhemp successfully pulled off an end-run in many parts of the Midwest this summer. The wacky weather patterns messed with spray schedules. Residual herbicides applied at planting couldn't muster enough of a sustained defense to keep the gaps closed for timely post treatments. Add weed resistance to the picture and things got dirty.

In July, Amy Brown, a Blue Mound, Illinois, farmer, began noticing an abundance of waterhemp poking through the soybean canopy. Jobs for rural teenagers aren't that plentiful, so the mom in farmer Brown figured walking soybeans could be a good way for her sons to make a few bucks and hone their work ethic.

By the time Brown and her crew headed to the field, her sons had rustled up a dozen or so high school classmates/football teammates to lend a hand and she had negotiated jobs with several local farmers in need of the talents of this special team. The going rate for weed crews these days is about $10 per hour per person.

Brown's pickup bed filled with sharpened hoes was enough to fuel a flashback for this farm girl. My father believed walking soybeans (and corn) was a great way to keep five children busy and give us broader goals in life.

There were no ear buds connected to iPods in those days -- our John Deere 4020 sat at the edge of the field blasting tunes from the fender radio. Believe it or not, the rock band Aerosmith was popular back then too, and the 1975 hit "Walk This Way" may have had an alternative meaning, but to us, it became a convenient theme song.

We drank out of the same water jug, passed the salt tablets to avoid becoming dehydrated, ate soggy ham sandwiches and worked for pennies to feed our 4-H livestock projects. Velvetleaf, volunteer corn, milkweed, cockleburs and jimsonweed were our main opponents. Weed populations were light enough that we could walk four rows at a time.

By comparison, Brown's high schoolers faced off this past weekend against a squad of Pro Bowl bullies. I watched as the boys waded through dew-drenched soybeans up to their armpits and whacked away at waterhemp the size of small saplings. Some gnarled plants showed evidence of failed chemical controls and others apparently laughed off herbicide treatments all together.

Midwest growers remained mostly in denial as weed resistance began to ravage the South several years ago. University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager said there still exists a mentality by some that resistance isn't real or "it won't ever exist on my farm."

One look at the tangle of trouble Brown's crews chopped away at last Saturday will give you religion. Statistics show many growers have grasped the need to use residual herbicides to get fields clean early, but I worry that we continue to run the same old play year after year and field after field.

Research at the University of Illinois earlier has shown that each field is its own biological system (…). If you have weed resistance in one field, you may not have it in all and the types of resistance can also differ. What works for your neighbor or in a test plot or for a grower in one of the articles I write may not apply at all. Waterhemp has evolved resistance to six different herbicide families in the U.S. Weed populations that can withstand more than one type of herbicide are also increasing.

Many new premixes have been launched in recent years and the marketing buzz often promotes "novel" products that contain multiple modes or sites of action as an answer to resistance -- in other words, if the first product doesn't tackle it, the secondary will. "That's fine, but they have to be effective modes on that weed population," Hager cautions.

Having a strategy or game plan for the season is important, but then a year like 2015 comes along. We were still trying to get planted in many areas when waterhemp was already waving from the end zone.

The Southern boys will tell you keeping weed seed out of the soil seed bank and maintaining a zero weed tolerance policy is critical to cleaning up a resistance mess. Hager has long been an advocate for hand rogueing small patches of obvious resistance before it makes a break away. "Field scale resistance doesn't happen overnight -- removing those first outbreaks can save you a lot of grief and money later," he said.

So maybe hand hoeing is a Hail Mary, but at least Brown and her crew were working to even the score. Plus, there's something heartening about a handful of boys that used a Saturday morning reprieve from a grueling football practice to walk beans. That makes them All-Americans in my book.

It didn't hurt that they joked and joshed about the same stuff we used to talk about decades ago -- pickup trucks, rival sports teams and the always-contentious Cards versus Cubs debate.

They even had the decency to blush when I revealed waterhemp plants could be male or female. After some polite snickers and a few kicked clods, they did ask how to tell the difference. I'm quite sure they didn't show up expecting a bit of biology with their morning helping of waterhemp.

At the end of the day, the boys went home tired, with some money in their pocket, a sense of accomplishment that they'd done a full day's work and the knowledge that while you might not be able to fool Mother Nature, you can fight back. There's a lesson there somewhere.

For information on how to submit a waterhemp sample for testing go to:…

Read more about resistant waterhemp:…

Pamela Smith can be reached at



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Pamela Smith
9/17/2015 | 12:34 PM CDT
I drove through most of central Missouri yesterday and saw the same tale -- lots of water hemp running through the combine -- even in corn fields.