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Minnesota advertising campaign warns of Palmer amaranth dangers

The state of Minnesota has launched an advertising campaign designed to inform livestock producers of the dangers of purchasing sunflower screenings, non-certified hay and other feeds from out-of-state, including North Dakota, because of the Palmer amaranth threat. State officials say the concerns are particularly strong at the Red River border between Minnesota and North Dakota, where several counties have Palmer amaranth infestations. The danger is particularly acute for the sugarbeet crop, which has few chemical tools to fight it.

One of Minnesota's social media ad campaign installments shows pictures of the Palmer amaranth weed, and the words, "Spread the word, not the problem," and "Get to the root of the issue."
This is one of several ads put forward in 2022 by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota Extension to heighten vigilance against Palmer amaranth weeds in the state.
Courtesy / Minnesota Department of Agriculture
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has been attacking Palmer amaranth weed infestations for several years but now is launching an unprecedented advertising campaign to help livestock producers and farmers protect themselves.

Officials launched the campaign in early August 2022. They are especially concerned about awareness by farmers along the Red River, where several counties across the border in North Dakota have become infested with the noxious weed, and where sunflower seed processors have spread the weed by selling and delivering infested selling sunflower screening to livestock producers for use as feed.

Two regulators -- a woman in a red jacket, and a bearded man in a black vest -- stand in an conference room.
Denise Thiede, section manager for the seed, noxious weed, hemp and biotechnology programs at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and Anthony Cortilet, the MDA noxious weed supervisor, say the department has launched a new advertising campaign to alert farmers to the dangers of Palmer amaranth weed seed contamination in feeds, including hay and sunflower screenings.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek file photo

Denise Thiede, MDA’s section manager for noxious weed, health and biotechnology programs, works with Anthony Cortilet, who supervises the noxious weed and hemp work.

Palmer amaranth has been dubbed by the media and some scientists as a “super weed.”

There are good reasons.

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A  green Palmer amaranth weed head, looking something like a shepherd's crook.
Palmer amaranth moved from the Southwest in the U.S. to the upper Midwest, and has been found in several counties in North Dakota, but Minnesota has attacked it. Photo taken August 2019, southeast Nebraska.
Contributed / Bruce Sundeen

First, it can grow 8 feet tall — taller than corn. Second, it produces more than 1 million seeds per plant. Third (unlike other invasive, noxious weeds) it came to the upper Midwest already resistant to most of the common herbicides like glyphosate as well as other major chemical tools. Fourth, it germinates throughout the season. Fifth, the seeds can be dormant and viable for years.

A hand holds a Palmer amaranth head, with the tiny black specks of the weed's seed.
Palmer amaranth can produce viable seed within the 35-day “cut cycle,” alfalfa producers use in Nebraska, says Tom Peters, Extension Service weed specialist at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota. Photo taken August 2019, southeast Nebraska.
Contributed / Bruce Sundeen

If all that is not enough, Palmer is a special threat in Minnesota along the Red River where farmers raise and process high-value sugarbeets, which have few tools for control. (The threat is similar in western North Dakota, where farmers raise more specialty crops, which have fewer control options.)

‘Zero tolerance’

When Palmer amaranth spread from the American Southwest, Minnesota regulators took a “zero tolerance” stance, requiring landowners to attempt to eradicate it “above and below ground.”

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The state of Minnesota gained a reputation for the strictest laws in the country on Palmer amaranth. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture in St. Paul requires self-reporting and eradication and prohibits selling or transferring even a single seed of the weed. Photo taken Dec. 16, 2019, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Learning from Iowa, Minnesota found that farmers were unwittingly bringing Palmer amaranth weed seed in the state when they bought and planted infested seed for wildlife and conservation. State scientists developed a seed test .

“We were able to get the seed industry to adopt that test and really were able to eliminate that pathway into Minnesota, and have very good compliance,” Thiede said. Seed companies are now diligent about testing products coming into Minnesota and are labeling “truthfully” and not selling contaminated products into the state.

Palmer amaranth weeds choke a crop field.
Palmer amaranth weed control is expensive but can be effective, especially with applications on irrigated soybeans in southeast Nebraska. Photo taken August 2019, southeast Nebraska.
Contributed / Bruce Sundeen

The MDA and Extension have a team focused on Palmer amaranth and have discovered other infestations. Through those infestations, they’ve discovered other pathways that the weed has entered the state, including sunflower screenings that primarily originated in North Dakota.

“A lot of the sunflower screenings we’ve tested — whether coming in from another state, or produced here in Minnesota — are contaminated with Palmer amaranth and that’s just because of where those sunflowers are produced,” Thiede said.

Minnesota also has found contaminated millet and milo, fed to livestock. In all feed situations, animals produce manure which is then spread on agricultural land for fertilizer, and the weed spreads that way.

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Minnesota has identified some manufactured feed products that are contaminated, including what’s known as “chicken scratch” feeds — whole-grain products sold by ag hardware and retailers commonly selling to backyard hobby poultry producers. Some include a variety of ingredients, but primarily label for nutrition.

Feed: faster than seed

“Feed is going to be really difficult to regulate because they don’t do the same kind of testing that the seed industry does,” Thiede notes. “They don’t have the same time available from when the product is harvested to when it’s actually used in a feed product. The grain moves through the feed supply chain very quickly.”

It is delivered to a facility, manufactured and shipped in a matter of days.

This doesn’t afford the same amount of time for genetic testing that is required to identify Palmer amaranth.

“We don’t know how the feed industry is going to solve this problem,” she said. “It would be considered adulterated feed under the Minnesota feed law, but enforcing that is going to be challenging when we don’t know what tools the industry is going to use to comply.”

The feed industry needs to be able to do its job, but the MDA has to be able to inspect, track end ensure that the industry is doing what’s needed, she said.

“And we have a gap there,” she said.

In 2016 and 2017, the department spent $80,000 a year, funded primarily through an emergency fund. After getting its seed test up and running, Minnesota’s cost for attacking Palmer is roughly $50,000.

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This is similar to the funding source for bird flu infestations. The department also spends Legislative Citizens Commission resources — essentially an Environmental Trust Fund in Minnesota, which gets money from various sources, including the state lottery.

The department hired a full-time Palmer inspector during weed season. They hired control work done by the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa.

Minnesota has done a “pretty good job of finding it and getting rid of it,” Cortilet said. In North Dakota, the weed has “spread pretty quickly” and now it’s established.

“They’re not going to eradicate it,” he said.

What, me worry?

“We’ve been able to keep it — at least in these little areas — where we can manage it,” Cortilet said. But the bad thing about the state “taking the lead” is that farmers still need to be engaged in keeping the weed out.

The MDA thinks the farmer can play a bigger role, with education.

For example, dairy producers typically purchase hay from out of state, which might be one of the “riskiest feed ingredients” for the spread of Palmer amaranth from infested areas, Thiede said.

“There are certified forage producers out there where the hay is inspected before it’s cut,” she said. “And you know, weed-free forage is available. It might be more expensive, but if a dairy is selling its manure, and they want to make sure that manure (market) pipeline stays open, they might want to pay a higher price to get certified weed-free forage.”

And she added, the MDA hasn’t identified all of the risks, but they know a lot more than they did in 2016.

Target audience

On top of their normal spending, they hired Russell Herder, a leading creative advertising and branding agency based in Minneapolis, to create an advertising campaign that is heavy on digital and social media. The contract is for $50,000.

In the past, MDA has hired ad firms to help with getting the word out for controlling emerald ash borer in trees, but never before about a weed. In some cases, the weed impacts are hard to document.

“With Palmer, it’s different,” Cortilet said. “It’s happened in Texas and Kansas and Missouri. We’re really the last state in the upper Midwest, so we had a good idea of the impact it was going to have.”

There is no need to extrapolate yield data, because its impacts are known. It can cut three-quarters of yield loss in corn and about 50% in for soybeans.

Chiefly, the advertising campaign tells farmers about the risks of the Palmer amaranth, how to identify it, and what resources are available, including how to contact University of Minnesota specialists and researchers to provide advice on herbicide resistance management.

Working with the ad agency, the MDA developed a “landing page” on their website where they are trying to make sure all of the resources are available.

“It’s really a simple message,” Thiede said. “Hey, this is different, you know. Palmer amaranth can really impact yields, and it could really cost you a lot as a farmer. It’s something you want to learn about, be aware of.”

Sugar beet threat

The MDA is especially concerned about the sugarbeet industry, Thiede said. “We are going to take some actions because of what’s happening in North Dakota, you know, to educate our sugarbeet producers … about the risks they might be facing.”

Cortilet said sugarbeets have a “very limited array of active ingredients” they can use for weed control.

“It makes them really difficult to deal with if it gets into their production fields,” he said, but added there hasn’t been a sugarbeet field yet where it’s become a problem. University of Minnesota researchers are studying how farmers can rotate crops to use traditional corn and soybean herbicides.

On the horizon, Cortilet is cheered that scientists are testing technology on seed-destroying equipment that can be added to combines. There are infrared lights used to treat seed. But all of these techniques add to the production costs for the farmer.

For now, Thiede said Minnesota is still taking Palmer amaranth siting reports. The MDA has a new “Report-a-Pest” system for people who think they have it.

The state, at least this year, is still working working on infestations and still surveying sites where they had known infestations in the past, but are shifting from “attack mode” to education mode. The Minnesota Extension partners are working directly with crop consultants, who are more diligent than in the past.

“This year we still are doing genetic testing, so if we get a photo of a plant, and it looks like it is Palmer, we’ll have them send up some leaf tissue to our lab, and we’ll do the genetic test,” Thiede said. “Of course this time of year, a visual picture of a flowering plant is going to be pretty definitive.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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