What it means for wheat in western Canada in 2023
By Emily Croft
In fall 2021 and early spring 2022, farmers in Western Canada began hearing reports of a potential shortage of glyphosate that would affect crop production and weed management during the growing season of 2022.
“Glyphosate is an important component of a strong integrated weed management program on the Prairies,” explains Jeremy Boychyn, agronomy extension manager at Alberta Wheat and Barley Commission.
The weed pressure on a farm is dependent on several factors, including location, weather, tillage practices and crop rotation. Some farms are more reliant on glyphosate and herbicide application than others.
Glyphosate is commonly used by wheat growers for pre-seeding and pre-harvest weed control. Previously, the herbicide has been reliable and convenient for farmers to access. Warnings of the 2022 shortage may have troubled producers who depend on that convenience.
“The glyphosate active ingredient is largest molecule, pesticide-wise, in the world. The product is celebrating 50 years of use in North America in 2024,” says Carmen Holding, product manager of Roundup, Corn and Soy Herbicides, at Bayer Crop Science.
“Cereal growers use over a third of the glyphosate that comes into Canada. It’s a good way for growers to get in a pre-seeding herbicide application. Once the crop is in, there are lots of options but pre-seeding glyphosate is significant.
“The other major use would be in a pre-harvest application for weed management. It’s good to control weed escapes for easier harvestability.”
With glyphosate playing such a large role in Prairies wheat production, farmers may be wondering about the outlook for the 2023 growing season. How bad was the 2022 glyphosate shortage and what does it mean for the wheat crop in 2023?
The 2022 shortage
When reports of the potential glyphosate shortage began circulating in late 2021 and early 2022, many producers worried that they would be unable to afford glyphosate products or that they may not have access to them at all.
The shortage was the combined result of several events. Supply chains across all industries have been under stress since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, laying the foundations for this problem.
“It was the perfect storm. There are only a couple of main producers, including the United States and China. Some of what happened in 2022 began earlier,” explains Holding.
“For glyphosate produced in the U.S., the ice storm in Texas in 2021 set back production and stocks became tighter. Then we were hit by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana. That shut production down for several weeks and it became a challenge managing supply.
“Then in China, plants also ran into difficulties with weather, and stocks were reduced. With the supply and demand curve, if supply goes down price goes up.”
These conditions resulted in predictions of high prices and low availability of glyphosate for the 2022 season.
By the end of 2022, most producers did not experience the challenges in acquiring glyphosate to the degree that was predicted earlier in the year.
“It wasn’t as bad as they were saying it was going to be,” says Boychyn.
“There was a lot of concern and hype. Producers got their glyphosate maybe a little later and at a higher price than they had hoped, but they did end up getting it.”
Holding explains that in anticipation of accessibility problems many farms had greater on-farm inventories as of fall 2021. The forethought from these producers may have played a role in reducing the impact of the shortage.
To get ahead of the problem, Holding also says that when it became clear that there was the risk of a shortage Bayer Crop Science worked to communicate the status of glyphosate availability to the industry.
“We were proactive in communicating about Roundup availability to the marketplace and tried to equitably divide out product to our customers and our distribution partners. We did our best to manage through it,” says Holding.
“The research showed that there was less use of glyphosate in the spring of 2022. Weather and supply constraints contributed to the reductions.
“Some secured products earlier in the calendar year while others were left looking for it.”
For producers who couldn’t secure enough glyphosate or were limited by the increased cost, there were a few strategies that were implemented.
“Through feedback from team and industry members, we know there was a lot more focus on application rates. Because glyphosate prices have been historically low, producers have been using higher rates,” says Holding.
“I did hear from a lot of agronomists that farmers were refining rates for only what they needed, and we saw an uptick in tank mixes that were used. By throwing in a tank mix partner, you can change rate of Roundup used.
“Overall, we did see the pre-seed market down, year over year, in 2022.”
Boychyn agrees that overall weed management programs likely changed very little, but he believes there was “maybe being a little more finetuning on application rates, as related to the weed spectrum that wheat producers had in 2022.”
Glyphosate status for 2023
As planting season approaches, producers might be wondering what the 2022 shortage means for their 2023 wheat crop.
“Regarding restricted volume, I don’t think we’ll see same impact in 2023. We expect a strong supply at Bayer and the availability will be able to supply customers with what they need,” says Holding.
Reduced accessibility was only one of the concerns surrounding glyphosate use in 2022. Rising costs of all inputs, not excluding glyphosate, added stress to the 2022 growing season.
“Within the past six to eight months we’ve seen a decrease in price as we’ve been able to stabilize supply more,” explains Holding.
Glyphosate availability has increased, and prices have started to decrease, suggesting that 2023 could be a more typical year in terms of weed management.
Despite this, the challenges of 2022 may leave producers wary of potential future shortages.
“I think the attention around potential shortages may encourage some producers to get their product in line earlier, and maybe having secondary plans in place, if they were a producer that came closer to not getting it in time,” says Boychyn.
“There’s a lesson to come from this. Producers were in a situation where availability was typically not an issue, so the approach to acquisition of products and assuring you have what you need earlier is maybe a good takeaway.”
He says that while prices have decreased, they're higher than average.
“I think glyphosate is a fundamental piece of a weed management program, but farmers may look for other sources that are less expensive. It will be important for grain prices to stay appropriate for producers to maintain profit with the high input costs this year, including glyphosate.”
Holding says that she expects the challenges of 2022 to encourage more farmers to consider lining up their inputs earlier in the year.
“Our supply chains have all been stretched. Being proactive will be helpful on the retail and supply chain and take away that anxiety.” BF