Steering clear of GM in the Midwest

13 Oct, 2014 11:00 PM
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Travis Miller and Paul McCaskie,
GMs all started out good and easy, but feelings are starting to change now
Travis Miller and Paul McCaskie, "Wyrra", Wyalong, NSW, inspecting the progress of this season's soybean crop on a Mill Farms block.

IN agriculture's genetically modified (GM) cropping revolution heartland it's not easy finding a large-scale United States graingrower who chooses to plant soybeans which are non-GM.

But in the US Midwest the Miller family's sizeable 8000-hectare cropping enterprise in North Dakota has defied the odds to achieve handy gross margin benefits by staying well clear of GM beans.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates about 90 per cent of the US corn (maize) crop and even more of this year's soybean area were planted to GM varieties.

Yet while impressive yield gains and simplified herbicide management regimes have fuelled GM's popularity explosion in the past 15 years, the Millers are notching up better returns from non-GM markets.

Increasing problems with weed resistance to herbicides are also making their neighbours think twice about their cropping programs.

Weed costs are rising as farmers are forced to resort to a mix of spraying strategies to clean up glyphosate resistant plants.

"We're seeing more and more weed resistance around here," said Casey Miller, who with his brother Jon has run the sizeable family cropping and grain storage business since taking over the from the father in the 1980s.

"Soybean prices are now much lower than they've been for while, so it's getting harder to absorb extra growing costs.

"GMs all started out good and easy, but feelings are starting to change now.

"This area grows a lot of sugar beets. There's increasing resistance to Roundup showing up in the beets."

About half the dryland cropping area on the Mill Farms aggregation in the Red River Valley is planted to a non-GM soybean varieties sold for a premium price.

Some of that premium is compensation for the extra work associated with guaranteeing the crop's GM-free status.

The price bonus also makes up for certain non-GM varieties which yield less than than GM crops.

However, some strong performing varieties grown by the Millers were bred specifically by the family in partnership with private plant researchers.

The crop is stored on farm in an 81,600-tonne capacity silo complex, sited alongside a railway line with associated grain drying and grading facilities.

Mill Farms also plants 2000 hectares to both spring wheat and corn in a continuous cropping program rotating with soybeans.

An annual average rainfall of about 560 millimetres (22 inches) typically delivers yields of about 8.7 tonnes per hectare (140 bushels per acre) for corn; 2.3t/ha (34bu/acre) for soybeans; and 3.4t/ha (50bu/acre) of wheat averaging about 14pc protein.

To get everything harvested before freezing, snowy weather starts setting in by late October, the business has six headers, all fitted with tracks to handle the boggy conditions which invariably plague the end of the cropping season.

Generally the oldest two harvesters are replaced each year.

"We probably only need three combines for the amount of crop we grow, but the weather conditions make it slow work," Jon Miller said. "We're always fighting moisture."

The farming business also has six high horsepower Case IH Steiger Quadtrac tractors and two Steiger Rowtrac units.

Fertiliser is delivered by rail and stored and blended on the farm.

Not far from the family's big grain storage silo stands a flour mill, also built by the Millers.

Although sold to another operator a decade ago, it continues to provide a nearby market option for their wheat at minimal freight cost.

Mill Farms employs up to 15 staff and is now also jointly managed by the Jon and Casey Miller's respective sons, Travis and Dallas, who are the fourth generation on the family holdings, located near the North Dakota-Minnesota border city of Wahpeton.

Their grandfather, Ivan, began accumulating much of the aggregation in the 1960s when land was "fairly cheap and easy to buy" from farmers looking to retire.

These days farmland in the district sells for $11,100/ha to $13,700/ha ($US4000 to $US5000/acre).

Much of the Miller aggregation was originally rented, to be later acquired by the family, but holdings are spread over a 55-kilometre distance and consist of about 150 blocks.

"About a quarter of our hours at harvest are spent moving gear around," said Casey Miller.

Andrew Marshall visited the US as a guest of Case IH.

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FarmOnline
Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall

is the national agribusiness writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

themule
14/10/2014 5:41:15 AM

Who would have ever have thought that GM crops were going to pose a problem causing resistance in crops. I am sure there are more stories like this one and sadly to reverse the resistance takes a huge amount of time and effort as well as money. The only people to win from the mistake are those who created it in the first place, the chemical companies. I hope that Australian farmers contemplating growing the so called ease of use GM varieties will think twice before adopting the technology. The costs down the track to repair the damage will well and truly out way any short term benefits.
Moondog
14/10/2014 6:22:18 AM

Themule could not have said it any better. GM technology is a tool, not a solution.
Jeffito
14/10/2014 6:29:13 AM

This story is an interesting example of a farmer who profits from premium prices for a segregated crop. Note Mr Bignell and other anti GMers that this farmer does this in an environment of free choice. He does not need his state government to ban GM soybean to take this management option. He is free to choose this strategy while his neighbour can choose another.
Jeffito
14/10/2014 6:40:09 AM

Mule, herbicide tolerant weeds are certainly a problem for RR GM crops and conventional ag. However, note that herbicide resistant rye grass and radish pre-existed GM crops in Australia and are not caused by GM. Evolution of pests to overcome control methods whether chemical of genetic is a fact of life known in ag and medicine for nearly 100 years. Prolonging effective pest control requires good management by all farmers.
Mug
14/10/2014 6:54:30 AM

G.M. Good tool. Wrong hands. Proponents should be responsible from paddock to plate-----like my bullocks. I keep then behind a fence as if they escape I'm liable. It's not rocket science !
wtf
14/10/2014 7:35:13 AM

Jeffito some of us are not anti GMers, it is important to look at it from both sides of the fence. In my POV free choice is not the case. Farm produce (eg hay) is a constant source of contamination to all farmers, as wind and floods are not stopped by fences. A farmer who wishes to remain GM free is having a lend of himself if he thinks he can keep his farm free and is therefore stonewalled into accepting it. Major food importers say they don't want it, we need to find out if a premium will be paid for it? As mug says it depend on whose hands, unless your into one world farming?
Jeffito
14/10/2014 7:54:13 AM

Mug, this story is not about pros and cons of GM so why raise this in discussion? It is about a farmer in a GM environment who chooses not to grow a GM variety, not because of quasi religious reasons but simple economics. He can do this because he operates in a system that segregates seed and has markets that agree on a level of adventitious GM presence set at a reasonable level above zero.
boris
14/10/2014 7:54:41 AM

Once again Mug you have absolutely no idea about the common law. If your bullock escapes you are only liable if it causes a verifiable production loss for your neighbour. In regards to the Marsh/Baxter case, Marsh tried to sue his neighbor for an unverifiable economic loss. Essentially claiming his de-certification (which interestingly he did not challenge) caused him an economic loss. Any plant, animal, dust, spray leaving a farm does not mean the source is liable full stop.
wtf
14/10/2014 8:35:40 AM

Boris, I know several contractors convicted of off site pollution when it Rained and soil was washed into streets, seems the legal system might be inconsistent in its application?
wtf
14/10/2014 9:17:45 AM

See the light, since entries into the earlier AWB article have been stopped I will say my point here. What u forget is that Saddam was sanctioned under the accusation of WMD, these were not found, thus the sanctions were illegitimate and the normal channels for commerce should have remained open, thus many people would have survived and the single desk would be intact. Will the govt tell Fairfax to stop my right to free speech again or will this comment get there?
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