As winter was winding down BASF held a media event during Commodity Classic that Farm Industry News covered where a key topic was the fact that the company is promoting the idea of creating habitat for monarch butterflies. They call it Living Acres and the idea is that farmers would take non-productive areas of the farm - those "weedy corners" and plant something desirable to the butterfly, in all its life stages.
The base of that plan is to establish more milkweed in those areas, since this is the base plant where the insect lays its eggs, gets started. Yet it turns out that getting a milkweed plant started isn't as easy as planting a seed, which is a surprise for many, since weeds pop up all the time. Milkweed is a slow starter. Farm Industry News got a look at the company's effort to establish milkweed in the field recently.
For Troy Klingaman, chief biologist, BASF research facility in Seymour, Ill., the daily job involves working with agronomists and researchers to test early research compounds released from the greenhouse; creating demonstration plots for visiting farmers showing how different products and tank mixes perform; and engaging in other research from soybean planting date work to fungicide use research. It's a broad list, but for 2016, he's also working on a new project - establishing milkweed areas at the farm.
"We are developing the knowhow that we can leverage to help the farmer create these areas," Klingaman says. "We're working to determine the best ways to get milkweed started."
Setting up those plots
Working on ground seeded to prairie plants, Klingaman and Katie DeMars, also with BASF, have created areas for trying to grow milkweed. The plots are in an area of land adjacent to a field in the Conservation Reserve Program that is part of the 170-plus acres of the Seymour facility.
"We mowed areas then took a weed whip to clear the ground," Klingaman explains. "We wanted the area to be as natural as possible and also to make it easy for farmers to set up as well."
These 5-foot-by-5-foot cleared patches became planting test plots for the plant. And basically there are two types of milkweed starts being tested. The first are plants grown from seed into seedlings in a greenhouse. The second are from root cuttings of living plants that have an active bud on them.
Interestingly, 2016 appears to be a good year for wild milkweed, because near the BASF plots the native versions are flourishing, as are the plans that Klingaman and DeMars have planted. Though they can appear to be off to a slow start, there were several field examples where the plants were thriving amidst thick grasses (see image).
"The milkweed is a perennial plant, we want to get it established," Klingaman says. "We are getting the seedlings to grow." The essential task is to get them established because once that root is going the plants will return. Klingaman hopes to have a good idea of best practices by next year, and the Seymour plots are part of a concerted effort by BASF to test these approaches to provide insight for the future.
BASF isn't just pushing milkweed planting, but they see the milkweed as an essential part of a pollinator plot that is designed to support monarch butterflies, but would also provide support for bees and other pollinators.
The rising use of buffers to protect waterways, and creation of areas to slow the flow of water from fields could also be an opportunity for farmers. Planting prairie plants and establishing milkweed could help the pollinator population, and it sure wouldn't hurt your farm. Once established, a milkweed population is pretty much self-sustaining. And lush prairie areas tend to keep undesirable weeds under control.
You can learn more about the BASF effort at agro.basf.us/sustainability.