Eyes on bees

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The narrative about a decline in honey bees is a modern tale. It is partly a story of agricultural efficiency and the need to feed a growing population. It is partly a story about economic concentration. And it is partly a story about how the public is informed about complex issues, including today’s viral nature of news and competitive views of science.

Yes, honey bees are a complicated story. Think about it. A hive of honey bees represents one of nature’s most fascinating feats—insects organizing and making themselves busy to turn a plant’s reproductive system into food. And that food, honey, is part of human history. No one knows when it first touched human lips, but honey is mentioned in the earliest of written history. It shows up in Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform and ancient Egyptian texts.

Of course, bees don’t know their status in human history. They’re just, well, busy. And humans have harnessed the bee’s industriousness and made it part of their own. That’s why bees make headlines.

Food production is greatly enhanced by bees, but popular press stories about humanity’s sudden starvation via bee decline are overstated. About a third of what we eat has been affected by the work of bees pollinating crops. Staple crops like rice, wheat and corn are pollinated by air. Thus, for Midwestern farmers focused on cereal grains and corn, bees play a lesser role, but in crops such as cranberries, apples, melons, broccoli and other produce, bees dramatically increase yield. And, some crops such as blueberries and cherries, and especially almonds, are almost wholly dependent on honey bees to pollinate and produce a crop. So whether your crop depends on bees or not, it is easy to see why the public is concerned about bees. They are an integral part of our food system.

It is true the number of beehives in the United States has declined over time, especially if you take a long view. Compared to the days of World War II, when sugar was rationed and people kept hives in the backyard for honey, hive numbers are down. But there has been an increase in hive numbers in more recent years.

In a USDA publication called Beekeeping in the United States, which was written in the 1970s, federal statisticians figured the U.S. bee population at almost 5 million colonies, producing some 200 million to 250 million pounds of honey annually.

For 2014, USDA statistics estimate the number of colonies at 2.74 million, producing 178 million pounds of honey. The 2014 colony count represents an increase for domestic hives. In fact, over the past five years U.S. hive numbers have climbed by 13 percent. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, since 2000 there has been a 13.2 percent increase in bee colonies worldwide, some 10 million hives worth.

A few factors help explain colony increases both domestically and worldwide. Since Colony Collapse Disorder first became a hot topic a decade ago, and hive numbers fell significantly, beekeepers have redoubled hive management to guard against likely contributors to the disorder. There are occasional weather patterns that increased hive deaths. And then there is economics: honey prices are at record highs. Demand for bees as pollinators is brisk—a growing need for pollinators and fewer hives has pushed hive rental fees to record highs as well. Demand spurs supply.

In their role as pollinators, bees are carted across the United States as seasonal crops create geographical shifts in pollinator demand. The same hives that pollinate blueberries and citrus in Florida can move north to apples and cherries along the Eastern Seaboard. Some bees do a grand tour of western crops, and some do countrywide duty. Total acreage of particular crops has a significant effect on local pollinator bee demand. Californian Almond orchards, for example, have gained acreage in the past decade. Because the crop depends almost entirely on rented bees for pollination, in any given year, more than half of the nation’s commercial hives end up in Californian Almond orchards.

But where did they go?

It was among commercial beekeepers that Colony Collapse Disorder, a non-specific dying off of hives, began to make real headlines back in 2006. What wasn’t covered in the more sensational media stories, though, was the economics of diminished hive numbers that became apparent in subsequent years. According to the California State Beekeeping Association’s annual pollination survey, average almond pollination fees rose from about $54 per hive in 2004 to $151 in 2010. You can see why farmers who depend on commercial bees for pollination began to take bee health more seriously—and why a general alarm was sounded.

Bee deaths from CCD have been attributed to multiple causes. Suspected to be among the most damaging is the parasitic Varroa mite, which is the top pest among bees worldwide. Other parasites and diseases, poor nutrition, stress from travel and pesticide exposure are in play as well.

Varroa mites arrived in the United States in the late 1980s. Tracheal mites are suspected to have arrived here in the early 80s. In fact, in the closing decades of the last century, a number of new bee parasites and diseases came to North America. These relatively new arrivals helped to deepen the mystery of CCD as researchers didn’t have long-term data to show how they affected hives here.

A closer look at neonics

Regardless of the complexity of CCD, environmental groups have been quick to blame bee colony losses on agriculture. From mono-crop production to the use of pesticides, farmers made easy targets to blame for a complex issue. In that capacity, Midwest commodity farmers became a part of the story for their use of neonicotinoid from multiple crop protection manufacturers. Imidacloprid (Gaucho), Thiamethoxam (Cruiser) and Clothianidin (Poncho) are among the neonicotinoids labeled for use in the United States. Worldwide, this class of insecticide has been registered in more than 120 countries. It became popular both for its efficacy and its improved human and environmental safety record compared to older chemistries used to combat the same pests.

In an AgInfomatics meta-study that looked at research conducted over 20 years, neonicotinoid insecticides were shown to have provided average yield increases ranging from 3.6 to 71.3 percent in eight major crops across North America, including all the common crops in the Midwest. Growers in MFA’s territory are familiar with these types of results.

Neonicotinoids, as you might guess from the name, were chemically derived from nicotine. As regulators pushed manufacturers and growers away from harsher insecticides such as organophosphates, researchers turned back to nature’s own defenses. Nicotine, the tobacco plant’s natural defense against herbivores, has been used as a pesticide in the past, but because of its toxicity to humans and instability in the field, scientists engineered neonicotinoids as a safer and more stable alternative.

A study from the University of Maryland published in March 2015 shows that imidacloprid doesn’t significantly harm honey bee colonies at real-world dosage levels.

The study tracked the effects of imidacloprid on honey bee colonies over a three-year period. In the study, scientist had to dose bees with at least four times the amount of the insecticide that they would encounter under normal circumstances to cause significant effects on the colony, including a decrease in winter survival rates.

Leader of the research, Galen Dively, emeritus professor of entomology at UMD, said “Everyone is pointing the finger at these insecticides. If you pull up a search on the Internet, that’s practically all anyone is talking about. This paper says ‘no, it’s not the sole cause. It contributes, but there is a bigger picture.’”

“Imidacloprid is the most widely used insecticide in the world,” said Dively. “It’s not restricted because it is very safe—an order of magnitude safer than organophosphates.” You may recall an extensive campaign against organophosphates that led their removal from domestic markets.

Dively’s study, unlike a frequently challenged Harvard study that has helped fuel the campaign against neonics, used environmental exposure matrices that more closely reflected real-world exposure to evaluate how pollen dosed with imidacloprid would affect honey bee colonies.

In the study, scientists fed bee colonies pesticide-tainted food for as long as 12 weeks, a considerable longer amount of time than pollinators would be exposed to a particular plant’s pollen in real-world scenarios. Still, even at the 12-week exposure period, dosage levels of imidacloprid didn’t cause significant effects on honey bee colonies. With a much higher treatment in the study, a dose some 20 times what they figured to be the real-world exposure, researchers saw more damage to bee health.

While not involved in the study, Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at UMD, said in a release, “A lot of attention has been paid to neonicotinoids, but there isn’t a lot of field data. This study is among the first to address that gap. It’s not surprising that higher levels will hurt insects. They’re insecticides after all. But this study is saying that neonicotinoids probably aren’t the sole culprit at lower, real-world doses.”

A growing number of scientists, including Dively and vanEngelsdorp suspect that there is a synergistic effect among multiple factors to blame for stress on bee colonies. There is a call for further research to understand the interaction.

In the meantime, there is continued pressure on agriculture. Recently, a federal judge blocked EPA’s approval of Sulfoxaflor in response to a lawsuit filed by the environmental pressure group Earthjustice.

A new cooperation

Regardless of how legal maneuvers go, there will be more research on pollinators. Last year, the Obama Administration, under pressure from environmental groups, beekeepers and various other constituencies announced a pollinator health task force which includes a wide swath of the federal apparatus. In May 2015, the task force released several specific strategies to boost pollinator health including enhancing pollinator habitat on federal lands and finding best management practices that can be promoted among private land owners. The Administration’s stated goals are to cut honey bee colony overwintering losses by half within 10 years and restore or enhance some 7 million acres of land for pollinators over in the next few years. The plan also calls for increasing the number of butterflies that overwinter in Mexico (where they can be counted).

Companies like Bayer CropSciences are working on the issue as well. Bayer, which sells neonic-containing products, has been researching bees for much longer than the current worry about CCD.

Bayer’s focal point for its research in the United States is its North American Bee Care Center, a $2.4 million facility at the company’s North American headquarters in Research Triangle, N.C.

The facility is dedicated to research, education and promoting the kind of partnerships that promulgate best management practices and increased bee forage habitat. Today’s Farmer recently had the opportunity to visit the Bee Care Center. Look for a more in-depth account of that visit, more specifics on pollinators, and how you can get involved in promoting bee health in upcoming issues of Today’s Farmer.

When Mother Nature wrecks a seed crop

Written by TF Staff on .

It was a story of two seasons. The Midwest had a monumentally wet spring that made for significant prevented soybean planting. At the end of July, Missouri, for example, fell a few raindrops shy of having the wettest May-to-July on record. Before the final tally of the average, the rain totaled 22.41 inches. The wet record was only 0.14 inches more at 22.55 in 1981. And then it turned off. The next challenge for the growing season was considerable lack of soil moisture. All told, it was a challenging year for growing soybean for seed.

That’s why it’s “buyer beware” when purchasing carry-over soybean seed from online sites, according to University of Missouri Extension soybean specialist Bill Wiebold.

“Why put your whole crop next year at risk to save a few dollars? It’s foolish economy. You get what you pay for,” he said.

Although it might seem like a cheap option, risks outweigh savings.

There are no guarantees with saved seed or seed purchased independently, Wiebold said. He recommends working with a trusted seed dealer. Seed sold legally in Missouri must possess a tag listing weed seed, inert matter and germination percentage. More importantly, most seed dealers have a full or partial replacement plan if replanting is necessary.

With about 20 percent of Missouri’s intended soybean crop unplanted, farmers face decisions on what to do with seed they purchased but were unable to plant.

Previous generations of farmers stored seed to use the next year. Wiebold does not recommend this practice.

“When farmers saved soybean seed for planting, they harvested in the fall and planted in the spring. They stored seed through late fall, winter and early spring. Weather conditions were relatively cool during most of the storage period,” he said.

Seed not used in 2015 must be stored through this summer. It was already stored through fall, winter and spring and has aged somewhat.

“If saved for planting in 2016, seed would be stored for an additional fall, winter and spring, which by itself doubles the aging time,” Wiebold said. “And it would be stored through the hot, humid summer months.”

On-farm storage also may provide less than ideal conditions with storage temperatures often above air temperatures.

Today’s practices use lower seeding rates and earlier planting. The stress of earlier planting cuts germination rates and results in lower yields and profits from low-quality seeds.

You can’t see seed quality loss by looking at seed. Standard warm germination tests evaluate viability and accelerated aging (AA) tests determine seed vigor. Wiebold recommends both tests for stored seed.

Test results in the fall or winter may vary from results at planting time. “We don’t plant in optimum conditions,” Wiebold said. Risks increase with early planting and pressure from disease and insects.


Where land will go

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

We reached out to four agricultural experts to learn what you can expect for farmland cash rent prices for 2016 and beyond. The team includes a property manager, a realtor/auctioneer, a banker and an economist.

As president and CEO of Farmers National Company, Jim Farrell offers landowner services, including property management, in 24 states including MFA country. He thinks rental prices are headed for a bit of a fall.

“We expect a gradual decline in cash rents, with more pressure going into 2016,” said Farrell, who works from the company headquarters in Omaha. “For rental prices that were lowered last year, we believe most rents will stay steady to down some, but we don’t expect a major decrease.”
Farrell gets specific about how land rents already went down for 2015. “Rents in our region went down 10 percent to in some instances 15 percent from the 2014 high,” he said. However, he added, a certain percentage stayed steady last year, especially if the rent was not at market in 2014.

“Landowners have not been real sympathetic to the current drop in farm profits as they feel in many cases rents went up much slower than income over the past few years,” Farrell added.


Josh Gerig is vice president at Murray Wise Associates, LLC, in Clarion, Iowa, which helps people sell, acquire and manage farmland. He points to high soybean and corn prices three years ago compared to today to explain why land and rent prices have been pressured downward.

“Land that sold here in Iowa for $11,500 to $13,000 per acre, for example, is now selling for $8,000 to $9,000 per acre,” Gerig said. “Rents that were $400 to $500 an acre annually are now $300 to $325. Next year, I’d say rents will be between $250 and $300.”

Rents may not be dropping quite as dramatically in Missouri. Ray Massey keeps his ear to the ground when he meets with farm groups as a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Missouri.

“I hear that tenants want lower rents, but landlords are hesitant—they’re holding tight,” said Massey, who works out of Columbia. “Landlords might be thinking, ‘Renters made huge dollars over the last four years and I didn’t raise rent.’ But some renters are paying 10 percent less this year, and rents probably need to come down about 25 percent if renters want to meet their budgets.”

FCS Financial provides financing to farmers across most of Missouri. As executive vice president of operations, Jeff Houts is in a good position to see what’s up with rent prices.

“The information we’ve received indicates a softer overall market,” Houts reported. “Lower productive land certainly has softened, with location being a key variable. There is a distinction between cropland and established pastureland.” But, he added, rent prices tend to lag behind changes in land purchase prices, and rent reductions have been limited.


Farrell reports another trend—most tenants want to maintain control of the land they lease. “While a few operators did not secure financing and let property go last spring, we saw little tenant turnover for 2015,” he said.

In addition, landlords aren’t selling. “The volume of land sales in the overall market is down at least one-third from a year ago,” Farrell said. “Most land sales at this time are due to life events like death of a parent. The great majority of landowners are holding on to the land.”

Massey explains why most owners want to hold tight. “Farmers are aging, but compared to other professions, they are loath to retire,” he said. “Eventually, when they slow down, many rent out the land rather than selling it—rental income can make for a nice retirement. The land isn’t usually sold until the owner dies, as paying taxes on capital gains earned over the years would be a big financial burden. And most farmers feel more comfortable owning land than with the stock market—over the last 10 years, land has paid off.”


We asked the experts to offer advice on how tenants can negotiate favorable rental prices this fall, when most deals will be struck for 2016.

“The best advice I can give is communicate early and often,” Farrell said. “Don’t wait until winter to discuss concerns or plans. Be up front. Also, be realistic and don’t overplay the situation. Understand that landowner costs have gone up substantially in many states due to tax increases.”

True to his banking roots, Houts recommended getting your ducks in a row. Start by understanding your individual situation from the financial and operating points of view. This should form a basis for understanding your potential margins. Having the facts in hand will prevent you from getting too emotional while negotiating.

Gerig warned that competition may be tight. “In north central Iowa, we have no vacancy rate when it comes to good farmland,” he said. “There’s always a long list of operators wanting to lease what’s available. If you want to rent land, you need to keep your name out there and share detailed information on your operation with landlords and land managers.”

To succeed in the art of negotiation, Massey said tenants should keep in mind that it’s difficult for landlords to lower prices—it’s a phenomenon that social scientists call “loss aversion.”

“But if a renter offers a service that makes it worthwhile, lowering rent prices might be easier for the landlord to swallow,” Massey said. “For example, the renter might realize he’s got more time than money, and offer to remove a dilapidated barn from the landlord’s property in exchange for a rent decrease. Many landlords are older, and no longer have the ability, equipment or resources to tear down a barn.”

Massey confirmed the concept recently when he met with two different groups of 100 farmers each; both groups included a mix of renters and landlords. He asked attendees to respond to questions about negotiating rent prices using hand-held clickers to indicate yes or no. “I found that if renters offer a service to offset the lower rent amount, it should work,” Massey said. “The landlord is thinking, ‘I need to be compensated for the land, but it doesn’t always have to be in dollars.’”

Massey doesn’t know if this type of negotiating is occurring, but he thinks it’s worth a try, since most landlords don’t want to accept as much of a decrease as renters are asking.


Since Farrell manages farmland, he sees the landlord’s point of view as well as the tenant’s. “Landowners need to have a good handle on what they own and how it compares to other properties in the area,” Farrell said. “They also need to have a good idea of what overall income their property can generate. That’s a starting point for a fair lease. We know that operator margins are compressing and there will be pressure on rents.”

Houts suggests that landlords make lists of the most important factors they’d like to see in a tenant. “Weigh the short-term versus long-term issues relative to continuity and care for the land,” he said. “Stay aware of costs and margins typically available, and establish expectations with those values in mind.”

Massey offers a couple final pearls of advice for landlords and tenants: Do a little research—ask your neighbors what people are paying per acre for cash rent. And get your lease in writing.

Farrell parts with this closing thought: While lower land prices seem to be pushing down rent prices, the opposite can also hold true. “Lower rents will eventually pressure land prices downward as well,” he concluded.

Traits and genetic improvements target increased efficiency

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

MFA continues to fine-tune the seed lineup sold through its 150 retail locations, according to Steve Fleming, director of seed for MFA Incorporated. He’s excited about the quality of seed products that continue to arrive on the market.

“The variety of seed genetics and trait choices have mushroomed, and we’re seeing steady yield increases—partly due to new genetic and trait technology, and partly due to inroads in precision agriculture,” Fleming said.

MFA sells a full range of varieties under its MorCorn and MorSoy brands, and also offers seed produced by Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta. With all the options available, how do farmers decide which seed is best for their fields?

“Some rely on MFA as trusted advisors to keep abreast of current and future technology,” Fleming said. “Others develop their own opinions and come in and request certain products.”

Since some brands develop seeds that work better in particular locations, each MFA location usually selects two seed brands to sell. “MFA Incorporated will continue to offer a full line of seed and seed expertise to its retailers to reflect the geographic diversity in our network,” Fleming said.

MFA looks for two things in seed:

Genetic improvements. With hybrid corn, sorghum and cotton, scientists focus on enhancing natural traits like yield, stalk quality or disease resistance. By crossing two genetically different parent plants with superior traits, you can create a plant that integrates these superior traits—the result is called hybrid vigor. It’s different for soybeans, which aren’t crossed as hybrids—they depend on other breeding methods for genetic improvements.

New traits. These usually involve genetic modification. Scientists identify a beneficial trait in one organism that they add to the target plant’s genetic makeup. According to USDA, 94 percent of U.S. soybean and 89 percent of corn were genetically modified in 2014—mostly for herbicide tolerance, but also for insect tolerance. In general, insect resistance is focused in corn lines since soybeans tend to have fewer insect pests and better existing defenses.

“Our main goal is to find the best genetics,” Fleming said. “While traits are important, they’re secondary because they enhance the plant’s genetic ability. We’ve seen significant improvement in yields from both. We continue to seek out improved seed so the producers we serve can grow more yield per acre.”

By far, the majority of seed that MFA offers are corn and soybeans, but many farmers in the Bootheel of Missouri grow cotton as well. Growers are expressing renewed interest in grain sorghum as corn prices have declined. MFA is also seeing an increase in sales of winter cover crop seed like radishes, cereal rye, turnips and clover.

New hybrids maximize water use

Fleming reports growing interest in new water optimization technology available to producers through Genuity DroughtGard corn hybrids. These products allow the corn plant to better manage available moisture during critical periods of plant development to maximize yield. This is especially important in western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

“We introduced one hybrid into our MorCorn portfolio in 2014 and are evaluating several additional products in our 12 replicated evaluation sites and at our training camps this past summer—with good results,” Fleming saids. “All of our seed partners tested their own new drought-tolerant varieties this year as well. I expect several new options to be available for 2016 spring planting.”

Glyphosate weed resistance also a concern

For about 20 years now, farmers have been planting Roundup Ready seed varieties that resist glyphosate-based herbicides. Recently, farmers are seeing weeds that are resistant to glyphosate.

“In Missouri and the region, farmers see resistance in waterhemp, ragweed, marestail and Palmer amaranth,” Fleming said. “Our agronomists have been at the forefront of addressing glyphosate resistance, adopting new strategies and methods including the use of pre-emergence herbicides, overlapping residual herbicides and the alternative trait platform—primarily Liberty Link soybeans.”

MFA will quickly evaluate new traits coming down the pipeline in the next few years. For example, Monsanto is developing Roundup Ready II Extend, which will help soybeans tolerate glyphosate and dicamba herbicides. Dow’s Enlist will resist glyphosate and 2-4,D herbicide. “We’ll see multiple-trait stacks in soybeans like we have in corn,” Fleming predicted.

Yield improvements continue

Grover Shannon, a plant sciences professor with the University of Missouri, offers hope for his specialty—soybeans. “We know a lot more about soybean genome mapping,” he said. “We’re isolating useful genes on chromosomes and we will be making a lot of progress with yield. That’s timely, because soybean prices are down, and farmers need to increase yield to make a profit.”

Rick Vierling, director of research for the National Corn Growers Association, said we’re seeing new modes of action to fight insects like nematodes, as well as fungus resistance. “New technology is being incorporated into hybrids related to viral and bacterial issues as well,” he said.

Healthier seed coming soon

Consumers continue to look for healthier foods. According to the United Soybean Board, researchers are investigating high-oleic soybeans that produce oil more like olive oil. Purdue University is researching ways to modify soybean carbohydrate content. And USDA is looking at soybeans with higher protein content and improved amino acid composition. These traits could attract higher prices.

Forage improvements come more slowly

Pasture and forage seed are also being improved, but farmers usually only reseed pasture every five to 10 years, so varietal changes come more slowly than with corn and soybeans. One popular recent improvement, endophyte-free fescue, allows cows to graze more efficiently, without as many digestive problems as regular fescue.

Who will bring the innovations?

There’s no doubt that new genetics and traits are boosting yields. To demonstrate the effectiveness of traits, Fleming points to these statistics. From 1950 to 1995, the average bushel per acre of corn produced in Missouri was 73.5 per acre. Fleming found that corn production jumped in 1996 with the introduction of seed that included the corn borer resistance trait. From 1996 to 2014, the average bushel per acre produced in Missouri surged to 127.9 per acre. Fleming believes that the combination of new genetics and new traits contributed significantly to the yield gain.

“I think we will see continued innovation from both the public and private sectors,” Fleming said. “Research at land grant universities will yield new varieties, and the research pipelines of major seed companies will deliver better genetics and new traits.”

NCGA’s Vierling adds another reason that big seed companies are leading the way—increased competition between the companies. “Corn hybrids used to take eight to nine years to reach the market,” he said. “Now it takes just two to three years.”

Feeding the world will take more than good seed

With the United Nations forecasting that the global population will swell from the current 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, we need all the help we can get to feed the world.

“We need continuous genetic improvement and trait options that help deal with drought, weeds and insects,” Fleming said. “If we truly want to feed a growing population while minimizing our environmental impact, we need to use GMO technology on arable acres we already farm. Otherwise we’ll see food grown on marginal land or encroachment into sensitive areas like the rain forest. I’m optimistic that technology will allow us to meet food demand responsibly.”

Shannon pointed out another trend in seed purchases. With the lower prices that farmers earn today, many are looking for the lowest-cost way to operate. “They want the best and lowest-cost seed they can grow,” he said. “You won’t get those seeds for free, but the best seeds might offset the cost of herbicides.”

Pre-emergent fertilizers and chemicals that kill bacteria and fungus have been applied as seed coatings for decades—and they’re becoming a more important part of the technology package you purchase when you buy seed.

Fleming said you need both—good seed and right application of chemicals in the right amount at the right time in the right place. “Agriculture is a system,” he concluded. “MFA’s investment in precision agriculture—and the grower’s willingness to invest in this technology—will also be essential to increasing yield.”


October 2015 Today's Farmer

Written by TF Staff on .


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