The Planted Row: Do you have any other option?

Stan Wise

by Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

If you ran a business and were looking for the most profitable business model, and you came up with a perfectly legal product that would make money for the consumers who purchased it but would also put their neighbors at risk of property damage until they, too, purchased the product from you, would you manufacture and sell it?

Well, that’s what happened when dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton hit the market. 

Last year, before special lower-volatility formulations of dicamba were approved for sale, there were many reports of off-target damage when some farmers illegally sprayed older formulations of dicamba. This year, when the lower-volatility formulations were on the market, there were even more reports of dicamba damage. 

Monsanto says this damage came about because chemical applicators did not follow the label instructions. However, researchers at the University of Arkansas say that while the newer formulations of dicamba exhibit lower volatility than the older formulations, off-target damage can still occur even when the applicator follows the label if the soil temperatures are very warm.

Tom Barber, University of Arkansas Extension weed scientist, is quoted in an AgFax article as saying, “However, when you look at the new formulations in a field setting where volatility measurements are based on soybean injury, differences in volatility between older dicamba products such as Clarity and newer ones including Engenia and XtendiMax are not as evident.”

Regardless of whether this year’s off-target dicamba damage is due to applicator error or a chemical that is simply very volatile, I think it’s fair to say that having dicamba-tolerant soybeans near your crop of dicamba-intolerant soybeans is a risk.

Now, farmers have long been excellent risk managers. Since they can’t control what happens on their neighbors’ farms, what’s left that they can control? Why, what happens on their own farms, of course. So, if you know your neighbors are going to plant dicamba-tolerant beans, what’s the best way to manage your risk? My guess is that your answer will be to plant dicamba-tolerant beans yourself.

Brent Henderson, of Weona, Ark., is quoted in a National Public Radio article as saying, “If it’s going to be legal to use and neighbors are planting it, I’m going to have to plant [dicamba-tolerant soybeans] to protect myself. It’s very annoying. It’s a property rights issue. My neighbor should not dictate what I do on my farm.”

Now, there might be some good reasons to plant dicamba-tolerant soybeans. They can help reduce your chemical application costs. They make it easier to control some glyphosate-resistant weeds. Also, they carry some of the newest genetic traits on the market and perhaps offer a hope for higher yields.

But what happens if you plant these beans, and you do every application according to the label, but a neighbor’s crop is damaged anyway? How would you feel then?

Maybe there won’t be any damage. On Oct. 13, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new restrictions on the new formulations of dicamba. For one, they have made it a restricted-use pesticide, meaning only certified applicators or people under the direct supervision of certified applicators can spray the product. They’ve also lowered wind speed and temperature restrictions, along with adding a few other requirements.

So that should solve all the problems, right?

I spoke with Paul O. Johnson, South Dakota State University Extension weed science coordinator. He said, “The regulations are going to help. As long as we are dealing with a chemical like this, we are never going to get a hundred percent of problems taken care of. We have had drift situations with dicamba for 30-plus years, and these things will help to make it less, but I don’t think anybody can put any regulations in place on dicamba and say, ‘We’ll never have a problem now.’”

And so here we are back to the original problem. Plant dicamba-tolerant beans or have your soybeans at some level of risk from your neighbors. What a fun choice, huh?

What if we just banned dicamba-tolerant soybeans? According to Johnson, “If you banned the seed totally in a state, we’d have a seed shortage.”

Companies and farmers have invested so much into dicamba-tolerant soybeans, that there wouldn’t be enough dicamba-intolerant beans on the market to plant all the soybean acres in the U.S.

The options are dwindling, aren’t they? (Just imagine if you were a tomato producer in soybean and cotton country.)

When I speak to farmers, many of them say that we need this tool. Look, I’m from the South, and I know what Palmer amaranth is. (We call it pigweed.) I know we need a tool, but what we need is a tool that doesn’t put our neighbors at risk.

Instead, we were given dicamba-tolerant soybeans, and by all accounts that has been profitable for their manufacturer. The new soybeans are expected to be planted on roughly 50 percent of the soybean acres in the U.S. next year. That means these beans have captured half the market in just a few short years. Have you ever heard of a more successful product launch?

It seems safe to say that dicamba-tolerant beans will be around for a while — at least until our weeds develop a resistance to dicamba. Given that in greenhouse settings, pigweed has developed resistance to dicamba in three generations, we might not have to wait very long.