Andrew Biggs, superintendent of the MU Bradford Research Center

Andrew Biggs, superintendent of the MU Bradford Research Center, says the research farm had some weather delays this year, although Japanese beetles were less of an issue. 

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Even as harvest continued across Missouri, snow covered the fields at the University of Missouri’s Bradford Research Center east of here on a sunny mid-November day.

It had been an eventful year for growing crops in Missouri, and Bradford superintendent Andrew Biggs says they experienced that on the research farm.

“On our end, we pretty well just had to wait until the end of May, and then we just took things and ran,” he said. “For our crops, 80% were planted the last week of May and the first week of June.”

The research center looks at a variety of agronomic issues, including weed science, breeding efforts, soil fertility, plant physiology and variety and hybrid trials.

The land at Bradford is not susceptible to flooding, but wet soil conditions slowed things down.

“Soil conditions, we just needed the soil to dry,” Biggs says.

Once the crops got planted, fairly consistent rains resulted in good yields.

“Our soybean yields on the whole were better than average,” Biggs says. “It was good corn. But it was obvious where the wet spots were.”

He says there were fewer issues this year with invasive Japanese beetles.

Kevin Rice, University of Missouri Extension entomologist, says this year’s insect issues were a mix of good and bad news. On the positive side, he said Japanese beetles, a growing concern in recent years, were less prevalent in 2019.

“Japanese beetles overall were a whole lot lower this year, and that’s because of the drought in 2018,” he says.

However, the wet weather this year will probably mean the beetles will be back to their higher numbers next year. He says their larvae feed on grass roots, and the rains meant more grass growth.

A negative for insects in 2019 was the widespread prevalence of thistle caterpillars.

“Thistle caterpillars, they hit the threshold of defoliation to need a chemical control in a lot of areas,” Rice says.

He says it is not entirely clear why the caterpillars were more of an issue this year. They are migratory insects, and he says weather patterns to the south or jet stream patterns may have contributed to their increased numbers across the Midwest.

Stink bugs were another concern. Normally they come out late enough to not be as much of an issue, but this year’s weather altered farming timetables.

“Stink bugs were an issue, especially due to the late-planted soybeans,” Rice says.

Overall, Rice says insect issues don’t change dramatically based on year-to-year weather patterns. He says a hard winter doesn’t necessarily mean insect populations will be suppressed.

“Insects have adapted to weather patterns over millennia,” he says.

Rice says insect larvae can burrow deeper. Japanese beetles can burrow as deep as 12 inches. He says some bugs can produce an element in their blood that acts as an antifreeze.

It takes a broad range of approaches to combat insects, Rice says.

“A chemical control only works in a field,” he says. “It doesn’t control overall populations.”

Rice says MU and other universities and commodity groups are working to find ways to control insects, including both chemical and mechanical measures. The university has been studying the use of treated nets adjacent to crop fields to lure and kill Japanese beetles.

Introducing natural predators for invasive species can also help control populations. This year, MU agronomists detected soybean gall midge in Atchison County, in northwest Missouri. Rice says MU researchers received funding to study the midges and detect how widespread they are in Missouri, as well as learn ways to control them.

He says part of the problem with invasive species is they do not have natural predators to control their populations, and there are not usually studies in the native countries about how to control them because those countries have their natural predators to keep them in check.

“When they hitchhike here unintentionally, their natural predators don’t hitchhike with them,” Rice says.

Looking ahead to 2020, Rice expects Japanese beetles to return to levels seen prior to this year. He says the emerging threat of gall midges will also be a big insect story to follow next year, as well as the ongoing battle against stink bugs.

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Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.