Build a Pest Management Team

October 30, 2017 02:56 PM
Field scouting

If a farm’s marketing manager misses a chance to lock in a high price, that opportunity might occur again later. But if pests slash yield by 20 bu. per acre because you discovered them too late, or couldn’t decide when to treat, you won’t get a chance to redeem yourself until next year.

That’s why Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie urges every farm operation to designate a pest boss. The pest boss is the one person in charge of all aspects of managing weeds, diseases and insects.

“In pest management, the buck has to stop with one person,” Ferrie says. “The pest boss has the ultimate responsibility, but he needs to delegate some of the work because the job is too big for one person.”

What should you delegate? Consider how many acres you must scout and treat. Then evaluate your farm’s labor force. Do you have enough man-hours available? Are they available at the right time?

“To figure this out, a pest boss needs a year-long day planner,” Ferrie says. “Man-hours available per year is not the issue—it’s how many man-hours are available during crunch times. Can you scout pollinating corn and still have qualified employees available to scout a weed outbreak in soybeans? Evaluate your resources in light of the need to scout a lot of acres in a short period of time and respond to threats in a timely fashion.”     

Plotting pest management day by day will help you concentrate your resources and spot potential bottlenecks. “Before planting, you aren’t too concerned about diseases and insects, but weed control is a priority,” Ferrie says. “In July, weeds aren’t too big of a worry, but you have to stay on top of insects and diseases, so that’s where you put your manpower.

“Domestic diseases—those that overwinter on the farm—might take two to three weeks to build up to threshold levels,” he says. “But other diseases or insects might reach threshold levels faster, so you need enough scouts to frequently cover all your acres. When corn is pollinating, you might need to scout all your acres in a single week. Think about the critical periods for each crop you grow, and how they might overlap or spread out your manpower requirements.”    

Finally, remember the employees you call upon must be trained to scout for pests, evaluate thresholds and, if authorized by the pest boss, treat problems. If they aren’t qualified, you need to look elsewhere for help.

How much authority a pest boss delegates is up to him or her and each team member. “If the employee scouting weeds is qualified, the pest boss might authorize him to spray when he feels he needs to,” Ferrie says. “Or the scout can report his findings to the pest boss and let him make the call. The pest boss can delegate authority, as well as responsibility, as long as all the information funnels back to him.

Where can you find help? “There are four ways to get enough boots on the ground to manage weeds, diseases and insects,” Ferrie says.

1. Train your own employees—but make sure they have the time. “The most common downfall I encounter is that a farm’s staff plans to do all the work themselves, but vacations or the pressure of other tasks, such as livestock, causes them to miss the window of opportunity,” Ferrie says. “If pest control team members have extra time, they can tackle other jobs; but too often I see the opposite happen.”

Using on-farm employees requires planning and coordination. “The nice thing about using the farm’s employees is that you can put various individuals in charge of weeds, diseases and insects. But watch out for conflicts with their other responsibilities,” Ferrie says. “The person running the planter won’t have time to scout weeds, but he might have time to scout for diseases and insects later on.

“The person running the applicator might not be an ideal weed scout, either. His primary task is to cover lots of acres, so he probably needs someone to go ahead of him and figure out what to spray. Often, I encounter an employee running the sprayer and scouting for weeds at the same time. But sometimes I see them scouting when they should be spraying and vice versa.”

Cross-training employees to deal with various pests increases the team’s flexibility.

2. Hire a professional crop consultant to do all or part of the scouting and make recommendations. “You can pay him by the acre or by the visit. I see professional scouts used most often by clients who do their own application,” Ferrie says.

When you hire a professional, make sure you agree on how big an area he or she is responsible for, the number of visits, the timing of the visits and how many reports will be expected.

Some farmers use seasonal labor, such as college interns, most often students who are studying entomology or agronomy, and school teachers, who have free time in the summer. “Be prepared to give interns and any seasonal labor the necessary training before you send them to the field,” Ferrie says.

3. Retailers are an often overlooked and underused source of pest management assistance. “Many people in the seed, fertilizer and pesticide supply chains do an excellent job of helping manage pests for their customers,” Ferrie says. “Some farmers fear they might not get an unbiased opinion if their crop scout is in the business of selling pesticides. But there might be multiple ways or products to clean up a field. A supplier might be able to offer you a better price by bundling products and providing product support.”

Some retailers only sell and apply products, leaving the rest up to the farmer. Others will put together a complete pest management plan, scout fields, provide timely application and revisit fields to check performance.

“Dealers who provide full service seem to be more timely at getting products applied,” Ferrie notes. “Because they’re scouting numerous fields, they often can see a problem developing, which gives them time to gather the products and equipment they need to address the threat.”

Dealers who provide pest management services probably won’t be the cheapest source of products. “But most of them don’t charge a fee for their scouting service,” Ferrie says. “Also, consider the costs in time and money you might incur if you have to train your employees or hire an independent scout. Weigh that against what you might save by buying products from a dealer with lower prices.”

4. Mix and match team members. “Using their yearly day planner, many pest bosses use farm employees and outside help to make sure all their bases are covered,” Ferrie says. “For example, a pest boss might hire a supplier to scout for weeds, manage resistance and perform timely applications. Then he might hire professional crop scouts for insects and diseases because he doesn’t have enough on-farm manpower available at that time of year. He might do everything else with his on-farm team, such as scouting fields to plan which ones to harvest first.”

No matter how you approach pest management, remember all information comes back to the pest boss who bears the responsibility for keeping pests at bay.

Your pest management team will evolve over time. “A pest boss’s job is always changing, as new pest threats materialize and manpower changes,” Ferrie says. “The pest boss might discover he needs to delegate more. Or he might find he can assign a pest management job that he’s been hiring out to a new employee, in order to justify his salary.

“It’s up to the pest boss to modify his team as he looks ahead and plans for the future. Making time for that responsibility is one of the reasons he needs an effective team.”

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