North Carolina cotton, corn and soybean farmers are making money with herbicide-tolerant crops, according to a recently released survey.

Herbicide-tolerant crops gave a total benefit of more than $20 million to farmers in North Carolina.

Corn farmers calculate they made $957,390 by switching to herbicide-tolerant crops and conservation-tillage. Cotton farmers found the switch worth more than $7.7 million. And soybean farmers had a benefit of more than $12 million.

The telephone survey, conducted in 2003 by Doanes Market Research based on the crop year 2001, asked growers about the three crops that rank as their most profitable ones.

North Carolina State University Extension economists Michele C. Marra and Nick Piggott, along with Olga Sydorovych, a graduate research assistant, reported the results of the survey, in the paper “The Impact of Herbicide Tolerant Crops on North Carolina Farmers.”

The survey was designed to compile a partial budget on the crops and asked cost and benefit questions in terms of gains versus herbicide-tolerant and non-herbicide tolerant crops. The researchers point out that the results must be viewed as a “baseline that will be refined over time.”

It covered weed control costs; seed and harvesting costs; convenience; human and environmental safety; tillage benefits and costs; yield and net benefits per acre. The survey also touched on potential disadvantages of herbicide-tolerant crops.

The number of acres of herbicide-tolerant crops has been rising steadily. The system lends itself to farming with less tillage. While the reasons farmers give as to why they have switched vary, the bottom line is it’s more profitable, easier and more convenient.

The net benefit of herbicide-tolerant crops compared to conventional crops was similar across the board.

The total net benefit among corn, cotton and soybean growers planting herbicide-tolerant crops was $9.30 per acre per year.

The benefits of conservation with herbicide-tolerant crops ranged from $43.67 per acre for corn farmers to $48.22 per acre for cotton growers.

Combing conservation-tillage and herbicide-tolerant crops gave growers a net average benefit of $53.54.

Since a large portion of farmers have already gone 100 percent herbicide tolerant crops, the survey asked them to guess at what they would have to pay if they didn’t use the technology.

In cotton and soybeans, there was no statistical difference in the costs for non-herbicide tolerant crops and herbicide-tolerant crops.

Corn farmers averaged paying about $4.50 more per acre with non-herbicide tolerant crops than with herbicide-tolerant technology.

There were no statistical differences between herbicide costs. Herbicide application costs averaged about $10-11 per acre.

The survey expected to see higher seed costs because technology fees are included in the price of herbicide-tolerant seeds. All of the seed costs for herbicide-tolerant crops averaged higher than non-herbicide tolerant crops with the exception of corn.

Herbicide-tolerant cotton seed averaged $9.50 per acre higher than non-herbicide tolerant seed. For soybeans herbicide-tolerant seeds average about $6.30 higher than conventional seed. There were no differences in costs for harvesting.

It’s been noted that convenience is one of the big draws for herbicide-tolerant crops. Researchers point out that it’s typically not a characteristic they seek to quantify when asking questions.

But in this case, convenience includes savings in management time; simplicity in herbicide selection; and more flexibility on herbicide rates, time of application and placement.

Farmers placed a dollar value of $14 per acre for corn and $18.40 per acre for cotton.

“We believe farmers can assess these changes competently, as they make these comparisons frequently each season,” Piggott says.

Growers put the “convenience” value at $10 to $12 per acre when they use herbicide-tolerant crops based on the saving of time.

In terms of equipment savings, corn farmers saved $5.50 per acre; cotton farmers, $8.50 per acre; and soybean farmers, $7 per acre.

Farmers valued any additional “convenience” beyond time or equipment at $1.50 to $2 per acre.

Just as difficult to measure as the “convenience factor” was the human and environmental safety aspect.

Farmers were asked to place a value on the human and safety benefits from switching to herbicide-tolerant crops. All farmers reported an increase in human safety from using herbicide-tolerant crops. Human safety was valued at $3.65 per acre while environmental safety was pegged at $3.80 per acre for switching to herbicide-tolerant crops.

Conservation-tillage figures heavily in both herbicide tolerant and non-herbicide tolerant crops. About 75 percent of the herbicide-tolerant crops are under conservation-tillage while 64 percent of farmers use the practice on conventional crops.

Corn farmers tend to use more no-till and reduced-tillage in herbicide-tolerant varieties. The trend for cotton and soybean farmers is the opposite.

“Overall, we found a savings in direct tillage costs of about $1.70 per acre with conservation-tillage in herbicide-tolerant crops,” Piggott says. “The savings were not significant for cotton or soybeans. Corn farmers reported savings of about $6 per acre by switching to conservation-tillage in herbicide tolerant crops.

Time saved ranged from $11.60 per acre for corn farmers to $18 for cotton farmers. Overall, the average value of time with conservation-tillage in herbicide tolerant crops was $14.67 per acre.

As to the environmental benefits, corn farmers reported $17.59 per acre; cotton farmers, $17.22 per acre; and soybean farmers, $19.78 per acre. Additional benefits from the use of conservation-tillage ranged from $8.54 per acre for corn farmers to $12.99 per acre for cotton farmers.

Yield was hard to measure because of differences in weed densities, weed types and soil types, but farmers reported no significant differences in yield between herbicide-tolerant crops and conventional ones.

Marketing uncertainty, which is usually omitted in production studies, and higher harvest costs were mentioned as potential disadvantages of herbicide-tolerant crops.

The average value of the loss from marketing uncertainties was estimated to be $15.40 per acre for corn growers. Cotton farmers reported the lowest average market uncertainty loss at about $7.82 per acre. Soybean farmers estimated the loss at $9.75.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com