Milkweeds and Stalk Choppers
Jun 18, 2017
I started out my agricultural career pulling milkweeds from soybean fields in the summer and running a stalk chopper in the fall. Milkweeds were a least-favorite weed because after the 4th of July their stubborn taproot made them impervious to the best attempts of a 98-pound 13-year-old to pull them by hand. Which meant hands covered with sticky white sap after the leaves stripped off.
Stalk chopping was a necessary job because there was no other way to get our 4-bottom plow to plow "clean" unless every stalk was shredded to confetti. The only break from the boredom of running a two-row chopper over corn rows at 3 mph was the explosion of noise and sparks when my glazed eyes failed to see a football-size rock hidden in the cornstalks.
Walking beans and pulling milkweeds (and cockleburs, sunflowers, smartweeds and velvetleaf) faded with the advent of high-powered herbicides. Stalk choppers lost favor when newer plows were developed to handle heavy stalks and residues. Choppers disappeared for a few years when disk rippers and conservation tillage made moldboard plows and black fields dirty words in our region.
Things continue to change, and trends seem to reverse. Now they've discovered that monarch butterflies are on the decline because the milkweeds they depend on as part of their life cycle have been severely reduced by those wonderful herbicides. And stalk choppers are again popular to handle the heavy residue of BT-corn planted at 32,000 ppa--though now the stalk choppers are built into corn heads to avoid the extra pass of pulling a chopper through the field.
So I'm scratching my head in recent years, noticing that urbanites and environmentally-conscious farmers are actually PLANTING patches of milkweeds to help the butterflies. To confuse me even further, some of the guys with "chopping corn heads" have taken to disengaging the chopping units when harvesting, after they discovered problems with the shredded confetti from their no-till fields building into massive drifts behind fences, terraces and in waterways, What's old is new again in agriculture, about every 10 years. The only thing that has disappeared and stayed gone…is my hair.