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The Price of Change
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Advancements in technology have arguably caused life to move at a much faster pace than it did even a decade ago. The speed at which change takes place today is phenomenal. While these advancements have brought about marvelous positive changes and benefits, they can inadvertently have equally dramatic and damaging negative effects.
One such advancement is the development of non-selective herbicides and genetically modified herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans. With this technology, along with corresponding advancements in no-till planters, tillage is becoming a thing of the past. Instead of spending hours on a tractor, plowing, disking, and cultivating for weed control and seedbed preparation, most farmers have traded the tractor for a sprayer, and can now cover vast acres in minimal time. The effect of this shift in agriculture is unprecedented, both in terms of efficiency and in the amount of soil that is saved annually, because these untilled fields are much less susceptible to erosion.
Saving time, money, and soil is positive and good, but as with any scientific equation, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This indiscriminate spraying has left the Kansas countrysides virtually lifeless. Nature’s way to protect the earth from erosion is to cover the soil each spring with a diverse mixture of plants. These plants not only serve as a means of erosion control, but also begin the annual natural biological life cycle. Arguably, the concern for soil erosion has been reduced significantly by not tilling the ground and leaving the residues from the previous year’s crop on the soil surface. What is not considered is the impact that disrupting the annual biological life cycle is having on the environment. One cannot help but notice the dull, colorless hues across the landscape.
There is much in the news today about the declining populations of pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Numbers are declining at a dramatic rate. As with any species, habitat is the limiting factor for survival, so it comes as no surprise as to the cause of their decline. One such species is the Monarch butterfly. According to an article in USA Today, Lincoln Brower, a leading entomologist at Sweetbrier College in Virginia, wrote that “the migration (of Monarch butterflies north out of Mexico into the United States) is definitely proving to be an endangered biological phenomenon. The main culprit is now genetically modified herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops, which leads to the killing of the Monarch’s principal food plant, common milkweed.” Monarchs depend on milkweeds as the adults only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Now consider the intensive nature of production agriculture today. Literally millions of acres of grasslands, that would have harbored milkweed plants, have been converted to cropland over the past several years. Many of the remaining grasslands are indiscriminately sprayed to control weeds. Though many people have a rather disinterested, or sarcastic response when it comes to discussions about the survival of various species, the survival of many forms of agriculture, and specifically vegetable and fruit production, are dependent upon these pollinators.
I sense this information may have no significant effect on local producers’ decision making when it comes to annual crop production, but perhaps it can serve as a means of awareness as to the significance of this one plant in the life cycle of a small but beautiful part of our experience here in Kansas. Milkweeds can grow just about anywhere, including rangeland and pastures, road ditches and natural areas, and if planted, in our own back yards. So, although the majority of Kansas land area is devoted to crop production, milkweed’s existence, and as such, the monarch’s existence here in the area, is not exclusively dependent on cropland acres. The use, and more importantly, the application method of herbicides, may be the most important piece of solving this puzzle. Recognizing the milkweed plant and “spot spraying” to ensure that it is not affected could go far in ensuring its survival.  
Milkweed has historically been prolific and common to the area, so most local folks are probably able to identify it. But if you are not, or if you would like information regarding the common milkweed and the Monarch butterfly, stop by your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or conservation district office located at your local county U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at  Visit us for technical and/or financial assistance for treating natural resource concerns. More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas.  
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