ISA Newsroom

Agricultural news farmers want to know.

In the weeds with Mike Owen

Article cover photo
Mike Owen recently retired after more than three decades as an ISU agronomy professor and Extension and Outreach weed specialist. (Photo: Joseph Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Matthew Wilde, ISA senior writer

Mike Owen always called it like he saw it.

Whether the weed scientist shared the pros and cons about herbicide chemistries or called balls and strikes during a high school softball game, Owen’s opinions were often praised or criticized. But in the end, right or wrong, he stood by them.

It’s a trait Owen is proud of. And, one that colleagues at Iowa State University (ISU) and others in agriculture say served farmers well.

Owen, 66, retired last month after more than three decades as an ISU agronomy professor and Extension and Outreach weed specialist. He directed research on many topics including weed seedbank population dynamics, the genetic and physiological control of weed seed dormancy and herbicide resistance, among others.

Mike Owen looks back on his career at Iowa State University
Mike Owen looks back on his career at Iowa State University

Even if Owen’s opinions about herbicide resistance and some chemistries weren’t popular with industry — most recently he, among other academics, recommended not using low-volatility formulations of dicamba herbicide post-emergence — he felt compelled to speak out to help farmers.

“You have to do what you feel is appropriate and supported by science,” Owen said. “I’m pretty well known as a hard head, and that’s accurate.

“But you must be willing to say you’re wrong, which I have done publicly on occasion,” he continued. “Thankfully, and perhaps unfortunately, I have been more right than wrong over my 35 years in weed science at ISU.”

Owen, who’s lived in Ames most of his life, graduated from ISU in 1974 and ‘75 with degrees in botany. He received a doctorate in agronomy/weed science in 1982 from the University of Illinois. Owen accepted a position at ISU as a weed scientist later that year.

Considered a foremost expert on weed issues, Owen often spoke with farmers directly or in large groups on numerous management topics.

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen described Owen as a “change agent” in crop production in Iowa and the Midwest.

“As a researcher and extension specialist, he provided national leadership on critical issues in weed management, particularly in weed resistance,” Wintersteen said. “That resulted in more cost-effective, environmentally sustainable management systems and strategies across Iowa, the nation and the world. As a teacher, mentor and advocate, Mike influenced countless students both inside and outside the classroom, inspiring them to become leaders and innovators.”

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), utilizing checkoff dollars, supported weed and herbicide resistance research led by Owen and other colleagues at ISU.

Ed Anderson, Ph.D., ISA senior director of research, called Owen a credible Extension weed scientist and a champion of Iowa agriculture.

“His candid approach has brought clarity, accountability and a sense of urgency to everyone involved in weed management through integrated approaches and increased awareness about herbicide resistant weeds,” Anderson said. “Mike has been a friend to the Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa soybean farmers.”

Besides battling waterhemp, giant ragweed and other weeds at ISU, Owen served as associate chair of the Agronomy Department and Faculty Senate past president. In his spare time, Owen enjoyed being a softball and hockey official and spending time with family.

Owen sat down with ISA to discuss the past, present and future:

What weed and weed issue were the biggest challenge at the beginning of your career?

“Woolly cupgrass a major issue. It went away essentially because of Roundup Ready technology. At the same time another weed, waterhemp, started to show up in the mid-1980s.

“ALS inhibitors were introduced … it was like the perfect storm. Farmers could control broadleaf weeds post-emergence.

“Resistance to ALS inhibitors and glyphosate grew just like atrazine before them. Initially companies were in denial. In the mid-2000s, I helped organize national glyphosate stewardship forums.”

What is the greatest challenge now?

“Getting growers not just to talk about the need for diversity in weed management but to implement it. We’re at a step-off point in Iowa. Weed resistance now, in general, is not that bad but that can change quickly.

“We can do something about it if farmers take steps. It will take time, more money and the benefits won’t be immediately recognized.

“My fear is they will listen to the sirens of convenience, simplicity and cost and continue to take the easy road managing weeds. Diversity of weed management is key to ensure longevity of weed management in soybeans. We’ve sprayed our way into the problem, but we won’t spray our way out of it.”

What’s in store for farmers and weed specialists in the future?

“It will be combating weeds we have — waterhemp, giant ragweed, marestail, Palmer Amaranth and others — without implementing tactics that may outweigh benefits. Widespread tillage can help, but it causes other problems.

“Diversity by having field borders, cover crops, rotating chemistries, using multiple effective modes of action and precision cultivation are good strategies. It can be as simple as isolating fields with a problem and harvest it last.”

Dicamba use is a hot-button issue. Will it change this year?

“I think there will be major problems with movement of dicamba in 2018. I have yet to hear any company discuss volatilization in training sessions that applicators are now required to take. It’s a problem without a resolution. This spring will be a real mess.”

What is something Iowa farmers don’t know about Mike Owen?

“I played fast-pitch softball until I was 55 and officiated hockey until 63.”

Retirement plans?

“Read the complete works of Victor Hugo. Fish and hunt more. Spend more time at our house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Lake Superior.”

For media inquiries, please contact Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at aputze@iasoybeans.com

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at aputze@iasoybeans.com. Iowa Soybean Association | 1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy | Ankeny | IA | 50023 | US

©2017 Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network®. All rights reserved. On-Farm Network® is a registered trademark of the Iowa Soybean Association, Ankeny, IA.Portions of some On-Farm Network trials are paid for in total or in part by the soybean checkoff.