SHIELDS, North Dakota — Another Palmer amaranth weed outbreak believed to be caused by contaminated sunflower screenings from Cass County, North Dakota, is creating new scrutiny for the inexpensive livestock feed.
A pair of related cases in Grant and Sioux counties has heightened concern among weed control specialists and advocates of western North Dakota’s dependence on specialty crops, which have few, if any, tools to fight the weed.
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring confirmed that the latest source appears to be a CHS Sunflower plant at Grandin, north of Fargo. He said the company has agreed to destroy all sunflower screenings until they can put in place an acceptable testing regimen.
Goehring said he must weigh the potential weed and crop risks against the complaints of “angry” livestock producers, needing feed sources because of the drought. No other kind of screenings has caused any outbreaks of Palmer amaranth, a highly aggressive weed.
Palmer amaranth has been moving northward in the U.S. for many years.
Minnesota declared Palmer amaranth a noxious weed in Minnesota in 2014 and the first confirmed cases were in 2016. The weed was discovered in North Dakota in 2018, and Goehring in January 2019 declared it a “prohibited” noxious weed. South Dakota did the same on Sept. 2, 2019.
The weed grows to 8 feet tall, and will out-compete corn for height. Each plant can produce more than 1 million seeds. Unlike most other weeds, it can germinate throughout the growing season. It has shown resistance to almost all major herbicide classes in the U.S.
Genetically-modified crops like corn and soybeans have more chemical tools to control the weed. But the state has more than 15 specialty crops, covering about a third of the crop acres in western counties, which have few, if any, legal herbicide solutions. Weed control chemicals exist for corn and soybeans crops, but in 2021 soils were too dry to activate them.
“I’m not sure there is a solution,” Goehring said. “In agriculture, we have inherent risk. We make choices to do things and I’m not sure we can always expect someone — when we’ve benefitted from some value out of it — to then pay and compensate.”
On Oct. 11, 2021 Palmer amaranth weeds were found, growing, across the street from the CHS elevator in Grandin. CHS officials provided the following statement about the Palmer amaranth outbreaks:
"CHS is aware of Palmer amaranth outbreaks in western North Dakota. We are working closely with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture following all sunflower screening protocols to help protect North Dakota crop production against Palmer amaranth."
John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, based in Mandan, North Dakota, declined to be interviewed on the issue of Palmer amaranth weed seed in sunflower screenings. He could only say there had been no “formal” discussions on the issue in his organization.
Grant County Weed Control Officer Merlin Leithold is based at Elgin, North Dakota. He is also executive secretary of the North Dakota Weed Control Association.
Two years ago, Leithold found Palmer amaranth in the northern part of Grant County. That time it came in from seed, not feed — common alfalfa seed and some on millet seed. Those Palmer amaranth plants didn’t make it to seed production and since have been “almost eradicated” with “a lot of hand-pulling, clipping, and some chemical control,” he said.
In early September 2021, Leithold received a report of Palmer amaranth infestation from Mike Weinhandl, a farmer/rancher from the unincorporated village of Shields, about 55 miles south of Mandan.
Leithold brought in North Dakota State University officials, who confirmed “thousands” of plants on “several hundred acres.” A second livestock producer has it in Sioux County, just across the Cannonball River, from the same trucker and same source. Weinhandl (pronounced WINE-handle) declined to be interviewed. But Leithold said Weinhandl believed the weed seed came from sunflower screenings from CHS at Grandin.
Weinhandl acquired five semi-trailer loads of sunflower screenings from the CHS Sunflower plant, about 265 miles to the east. Employees piled it in a hay yard and later put it into a feeder wagon and mixed with silage and ground hay, and fed it last winter and spring.
“A lot of it was fed on hay ground,” Leithold said. “In the spring, they harrowed it. The harrow moved the manure around.” With adequate moisture, the Weinhandl operation would have expected a good hay crop.
In dry 2021, they didn’t even hay it.
On the lookout
Sometime after spring, Weinhandl learned about Palmer amaranth when he acquired corn for feed at a Valley City, North Dakota, area grain elevator, in Barnes County. He told the elevator manager he also was feeding sunflower screenings, and the manager warned for him to be on the lookout for Palmer amaranth in the wake of a Barnes County case.
In Barnes County, Tyler Elston at TE Cattle Co., of Spiritwood, North Dakota, in 2019 unknowingly infested 1,000 acres after receiving contaminated sunflower screenings from Red River Commodities Inc., of Fargo.
Back home, Weinhold immediately stopped feeding the screenings. He started monitoring the fields and identified Palmer amaranth. He self-reported to Leithold, who contacted NDSU Extension Weed Specialist Joe Ikley and others.
NDSU helped set up a protocol for control. Leithold could use a 65% cost-share for on range and pasture land.
“The problem is, this time of year, when you find it, a lot of it has seed heads on it, and no chemical will take it out now,” Leithold said.
Leithold said the weeds are “all over” on the affected land.
“Where he fed it, in the rows, there’s quite a few. And then they’re scattered out, between what the cows moved in the manure, and the harrow,” Leithold said.
Leithold estimated “thousands, for sure." Unchecked, “you could easily have the millions in a hurry,” he said.
Many of the weeds had already gone to seed. Weinhandl has been spraying the infested land this fall, killing small plants that could still make seed, Leithold said.
“Right now, what he’s picked up so far, is about $1,700 of chemical. Our weed board cost shares the Tordon, at 65%,” he said.
Leithold said the trucker who hauled screenings to Weinhandl confirmed that other producers also received loads.
“We’re still checking with them,” Leithold said.
Goehring said state inspectors looked into the case at CHS Sunflower in mid-September. The state is working with the company to establish protocols for testing. It will be the same thing that was put in place at the prior outbreak from screenings sourced at Red River Commodities in Fargo.
“As of right now they have to destroy whatever they have there,” he said. “They’re just going to have to tell livestock producers ‘We can’t sell it until they’ve confirmed our protocol, and that this is what we’re going to do going forward.'”
“We’re going to have to come with some different approaches,” he said, noting he had talked to officials of the North Dakota Weed Control Association and NDSU about that. “Every situation and case is different. That means you can’t expect everybody to go out and hand-pull (Palmer amaranth) weeds. It might mean going out, cutting them off, collecting them and certainly dealing with them, but with any viable plants that are left there, it’s going to take a spray regimen when they’re very small.”
“It doesn’t seem to be a very big deal in the rest of the region because everybody else has — for the most part — ignored it, or changed what they’re doing,” Goehring said, indicating rotations might be a key.
“The problem is, we’re in the middle of a drought. I have a bunch of angry livestock producers out here that need feed. They started calling. They said, ‘You’ve got to find some way for us to get something to help supplement our feed so we can keep our cattle,'” Goehring said.
“They asked me to do something,” he said. “My job is to figure out what that something is.”
Sunflower screenings are part of the solution, despite the Palmer amaranth risks, he said.
“I know we specifically keep looking at sunflowers — and yes, they are the most likely culprit — but we have all kinds of screenings out there that can have noxious weeds,” Goehring said.
No other Palmer amaranth outbreaks in the state so far have been attributed to grain processing screenings from anything but sunflowers.
Using the money
“I have legislators who are upset because I continually ask for more money to handle noxious weeds throughout our 53 counties,” he said.
The state provides funds for a Landowner Assistance Program, Goehring said. But the legislators see unsolved weed infestations, and not all counties are aggressive.
Some counties aren’t eligible because they don’t levy 3 mills of taxes for weed control that is required to receive the funds from the state. Some counties don’t use the money they get. Some weed officers don’t want to get heavy-handed with neighbors.
“That’s the issue we’re really dealing with. It’s not just Palmer amaranth, it’s all noxious weeds,” Goehring said.
And he said that If livestock producers don’t call and complain about noxious weeds they’ve received in their screenings they’ve fed, and they put manure out on the soil, the landowner is still liable.
“Federal and state law says ‘You have to manage your noxious weeds,’” Goehring said.
"(Red River Commodities) now tests every semi-load,” he said. The product first goes into a storage area, “similar to a semi-truck trailer.” He said the sampling protocol is the same as sampling a grain load for quality purposes.
“I can’t tell you specifically what (the protocols) are, but I would suspect that in a semi, probably four or five probes are being done at various spots,” he said. The company collects “a pound of material or more.” Instead of testing the whole sample, Goehring asks the company to “pull off” weed seeds that look like they’re from the pigweed family — including Palmer amaranth.
Currently, Department of Ag inspectors are pulling the samples, he said. They also gave Red River Commodities the option of supplying their own personnel to be trained to do the protocols. Then the ag department staff would simply provide oversight.
Goehring said he thinks Red River Commodities is destroying some screenings. He said he could find out what percent of the loads — if any — were being destroyed.
Leithold said this seems insufficient.
In a “perfect world,” he thinks all the screenings should be incinerated, but he acknowledges farmers have a feed need in drought times.
“There should be a way to clean these small seeds out of the screenings before they ship them,” he said. The “fine” or small seeds should not go with the screenings. There could be “remodeling” costs for the facilities.
“There’s got to be a way. We can’t continue to get these screenings all over these counties, build up a big infestation of Palmer amaranth. If we do, it’s going to be like we have leafy spurge — all over the place. We can’t have that,” he said. “Until we can get a zero tolerance (policy) we won’t be happy. We can’t be happy.”