When I was young I got many compliments on my nice golden tan. Many people thought I spent my summer as a lifeguard, playing softball, or laying out in the backyard sipping lemonade and listening to music like many girls my age. My tan was earned in a much less “cool” way – walking beans.
Early in the morning, my mom or dad would drive my brothers and me out to a weedy soybean field. With a hoe in hand, we’d walk the half-mile long rows removing any plants in the field that were not soybeans. Buttonweed, milkweed, sunflower, morning glory, fox tail, and cockle bur plants are common weeds in Iowa soybean fields. These weeds compete with soybean plants for valuable moisture and nutrients. If they are not removed, soybean yield can decrease, the plants go to seed resulting in a weedier field next year, and the field will look unkempt. A farmer’s tolerance for weeds varies just as much as a person’s acceptance of a messy desk. Some are okay with a few weeds, while others prefer a pristine field.
Many farmers used a bean hook or corn knife to walk beans, but not us. Dad’s preferred tool was a hoe. I’m not sure if that’s because he didn’t trust us with sharp objects, or because a hoe did a better job.
Early-to-mid July was prime bean walking season. Before planting and early in the growing-season, farmers used a tractor and cultivator or rotary hoe to remove the weeds. These machines worked great, but they could only be used when the soybeans were small and there was ample space between the rows.
Weeds usually weren’t a problem late in the growing season either. In August and September the soybean plants were large enough to shade the space between the rows, making it difficult for emerging weeds to thrive.
During the era when walking beans was common, farmers also used chemicals, called herbicides, to control weeds. Before planting, pre-emergent herbicides were applied and incorporated into the top few inches of soil. Like their name suggests, these chemicals must be used before weeds emerge since they prevent weed seeds from germinating. Pre-emergent herbicides are only effective on select weeds types, so a combination of pre-emergents are often used to kill multiple weed species. Because most pre-emergent herbicides are effective when tilled into the soil, their use declined as the popularity of no-till farming increased.
Walking beans is rarely needed today thanks to the development of Roundup® Ready soybeans in the late 1990’s. Roundup® (glyphosate), is a non-selective post-emergence herbicide. In layman’s terms, it kills all plant types when sprayed on plants’ leaves. It works by interfering with plants’ ability to produce essential amino acids. Glyphosate was patented in the 1970’s and widely used by farmers and home-owners.
Glyphosate resistant crops are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. Using a gene gun scientists insert germplasm from a bacterium into seeds so that they can still produce the amino acids. Then when glyphosate is sprayed it kills the weeds but leaves the desired crop. This technology greatly reduced the need to mechanically remove weeds, both with tractors and tillage equipment and by hand with a crew of young bean-walkers. This Roundup® Ready trait has been introduced to corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sorghum, and even alfalfa.
Using Roundup® and other herbicides is not the only tool farmers use to control weeds. Tillage methods and crop rotation are important too. And sometimes, even in Iowa, farmers still walk beans.
Walking beans didn’t take much skill, but I did learn some valuable skills in those hot soybean fields.
- Get the job you dread the most done early in the day.
- Be thorough. It takes less time to do a job well, than it does redoing a sloppy job later.
- The gratification of a job well done is worth the pain of a few blisters you get along the way.
- When you remove the bad things, the good things will thrive.
- Good company & a little humor always help.