When Monsanto’s Xtend soybeans were approved for planting this season, many applauded the move. After all, the technology means crops can be sprayed with dicamba and weeds are only becoming tougher to control. There was a huge caveat, though: while the seed could be planted, new, less volatile formulations of dicamba were not approved.
In the run up to planting, Mid-South growers were repeatedly warned over-the-top applications of available dicamba products would not be allowed. Even so, state officials fretted improper spraying would happen following a 2015 growing season when “some individuals — a very small group — used a dicamba product not labeled for this seed,” said Susie Nichols at the Arkansas State Plant Board in April. “That’s a big worry for the Plant Board; there’s a lot of Xtend soybean seed in the state. We’ve tried to let everyone know it’s a violation to use any dicamba product on this technology because none is labeled for this use.
“It’s a major concern because dicamba has a very adverse effect on soybeans. It has a propensity to drift and can kill an entire crop and a lot of this new technology crop will be planted in close vicinity to (vulnerable) soybeans.”
Sure enough, despite the warnings the temptation to spray was too much for some growers. Now, neighboring fields are paying the price.
“This is a huge issue and is really unprecedented,” says Kevin Bradley, University of Missouri weed specialist. “The situation with drift in the Bootheel is unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t know of any cases outside the Bootheel.”
In late June “the first complaints came in,” says Bradley. “Those continued at a steady pace for several more weeks. New incidents have begun to drop off, as I understand.”
The Missouri Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Pesticide Control is conducting investigations of more than 100 complaints in four southeast Missouri counties.
“Soybeans are what have been affected most,” says Bradley. “There will be yield losses, sometimes large, in some of these fields. However, there are some vegetable crops and homeowners are calling with complaints about harmed ornamental or fruit trees. It isn’t just row-crop farmers being affected.”
In response, a forum is being planned for July 29 at the Delta Center in Portageville, Mo.
Across the river in west Tennessee, the first drift calls Larry Steckel received came in late June from northwestern counties. “Those have expanded and continue until today,” says the University of Tennessee weed specialist. “We’re looking at a considerable amount of affected acreage.
“Yesterday (July 18), we had a meeting with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. They’re up to 35 official complaints filed and they’re still getting calls, as well.”
The story is similar in Arkansas. Jeremy Ross, Arkansas Extension soybean specialist, first began hearing of suspected dicamba drift problems in the Bootheel. “Those reports have progressed south over the last month, or so. What was surprising is how quiet things remained even while this was happening.
“I spoke with someone at the Plant Board a couple of weeks ago and there hadn’t been many complaints. That’s changed since then – there have been a couple dozen complaints filed now. But they’ve also received many, many phone calls and emails from folks reporting drift but not wanting to file formal complaints. On top of everything else, that’s led a lot of people to believe this problem is really widespread.”
In terms of reporting their neighbor for drift, it appears few want to be the one wearing a black hat.
“We have approximately 25 complaints,” says Nichols. “In the grand scheme, that’s not a lot. Here’s the thing, though: lots of people are calling wanting something done. They just don’t want to file a complaint because their neighbors are friends, their kids play together and they attend the same church. I understand that approach and encourage folks to work things out, if possible. They may want to work it out among themselves but they still want (the Plant Board) to act.
“What I’ve told them is they won’t file a complaint then send letters in support of putting more regulations in place. Also, show up at the Plant Board meetings to let committees know ‘hey, we’re being affected by this and something must be done.’”
If the number of calls is any indication, Nichols is expecting “a whole lot of people” at the July 25 meeting at the Plant Board building in Little Rock. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. and Nichols suggests “anyone interested drive in early to get a seat. The room can’t handle a massive crowd.”
Is Nichols hearing from the feds about this?
“Actually, I – along with counterparts in Missouri and Tennessee – give the EPA a weekly update. Starting this week, I’ll also be on conference calls concerning the issue. I’m not sure what the feds are doing with the information we’re providing.
“All of the complaints so far have been on soybeans. I’ve heard watermelons and peanuts have been hit but we’ve not gotten any calls on those yet.”
Over in Mississippi, “I’m not happy to admit we’re definitely seeing dicamba drift,” says Jason Bond, state weed specialist. “You can see it just driving down the road. I’ve seen cases from Tunica all the way down to Yazoo City.
“So, dicamba drift is happening in Mississippi but from talking to (counterparts) about Arkansas, Tennessee and the Bootheel, it doesn’t seem to be as bad.
“How to quantify that is difficult, though. I can tell you some fields in the state are absolutely hammered. It’s not subtle. Anyone – in ag, or not -- can drive by and say ‘Something just isn’t right with that field.’ But without folks making formal reports, what can be done?”
The biggest thing Bond deals with every year “is drift, usually on rice. This situation is different because very few complaints are being registered with the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industries.”
Back in Tennessee, Steckel just finished checking some drift fields he was first called to in early July. “Those fields were worrying because they’d been worked over with some dicamba. The area they’re in has had some good rains, though, and the fields actually looked a lot better. That’s a bright spot, I guess.
“The big questions growers ask are ‘how much yield have I lost?’ and ‘how do I get compensated?’ As to yield, there’s no good answer. A lot depends on what stage the crop is in when a field is hit – and some fields are drifted on more than once.”
So far all the drift Steckel has looked at has been on soybeans. “On Friday (July 15), I was in Montgomery County, our biggest tobacco-growing county. Some Xtend beans had been planned around there early but those plans were scrapped. Thank goodness for that because tobacco can’t take even a whiff of dicamba.”