Talking Dicamba With Farmers — What I Learned

Robb Fraley
Jul 11, 2017 · 6 min read

Helping farmers is what we do at Monsanto, and many of us, myself included, have farming backgrounds. I grew up on a small farm in Illinois and paying attention to what farmers have to say comes pretty naturally — so it’s not only good business for us, it’s what we do by nature.

That’s why I spent that last few weeks traveling through Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois and South Dakota to visit with soybean farmers, consultants and academics firsthand. I wanted to see for myself what kinds of experiences farmers were having with our new dicamba product, XtendiMax® with VaporGrip® technology. And I wanted to check into the reports — deeply concerning to our company and to me personally — about fields showing symptoms of potential crop injury due to off-target movement.

The picture I saw was mixed. On the one hand, I saw and heard a lot of success stories from growers and applicators in every state where our XtendiMax® product has been approved for in-crop use. In fact, I would say that most of the farmers I visited with are very pleased with their weed control this season, and I could see why. Their fields are showing very good control of difficult weeds, such as water hemp and pigweed, that they have been dealing with for years. Our new product has again put them one step ahead of the constantly evolving threat that weeds pose.

These farmers also have been conscientious about their responsibilities in connection with the use of our product. They knew all about the application requirements to help minimize any risk of off-target movement, and many told me they’d attended one or more of the learning events where we’ve hosted nearly 50,000 custom applicators, grower applicators and other key stakeholders at venues across the country.

On the other hand, I also saw fields where there was clear symptomology — especially in Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. I understand why these farmers are angry and concerned and are looking for answers.

The symptomology I saw — and what most farmers experiencing symptomology are seeing — was leaf cupping. While leaf cupping can be caused by dicamba, it can also be caused by many other things, including environmental factors, diseases and other crop protection products. For that reason, diagnosing the problem can be complex, especially when there have been relatively few inquiries in closely neighboring states. In fact, Arkansas, the only major cotton and soybean growing state where Monsanto does not sell XtendiMax®, has received nearly twice as many inquiries as every other state combined.

Here are more details about what I saw …

· I saw some fields where there was clearly off-target movement from dicamba applications — these were easy to understand based on wind direction and symptomology patterns. In some of these cases, the applicator and affected party have usually talked and reached a resolution. Fortunately, in most cases that I observed, the cupped beans are already recovering and should yield normally.

· Several of the fields, especially Liberty Link soybeans treated with various glufosinate herbicides in Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, were unique in having uniform leaf cupping across the entire field (even large 80–200+ acre fields). The uniformity suggests possibly vaporization of older dicamba formulations over a broad area or sprayer contamination. Some consultants and academicians felt that vaporization of dicamba, especially from older and generic formulations not approved for in-crop use, could be exacerbated by temperature inversions, which were quite frequent this spring. I also saw striking evidence from aerial photography and field spray pattern observations that the uniform cupping on some fields is due to contamination of sprayer units.

· Several farmers I spoke with candidly believed that contamination of some of the commercial herbicide formulations might explain the spray patterns and uniformity. We are working closely with farmers to test containers and tank mixes to determine possible contaminants. If your field exhibits these types of symptoms, please let us know by calling 1–844-RRXTEND.

· Some of the leaf cupping I saw that is being attributed to dicamba is being misdiagnosed. As I mentioned, soybean leaf cupping can be caused by a variety of diseases, environmental conditions and herbicide and adjuvant treatments. Several putative dicamba-impacted fields in Tennessee showed 2, 4-D symptomology, and some of the leaf cupping I saw in Illinois is a result of using a combination of high rates of surfactants and other broadleaf herbicides in the glyphosate spray under high temperature conditions.

· Back to vaporization. While it appears that most farmers are using labeled products according to best application practices, there unfortunately is also significant off-label use of older dicamba products not formulated or approved for over-the-top use. Some I spoke with estimate — based on what they have observed being purchased and from increased generic product sales in 2017 — that this could account for roughly 25% of the applications in certain areas. I’m surprised and disappointed that off-label use would be so high, but it’s hard for me to imagine why generic dicamba sales would be up as many have reported in a year when both corn and wheat acres are down; the only legal use of these products in late spring or summer is pasture renovation, and there isn’t that much pasture! This is critical because the volatility of many of the products not approved for in-crop use is significantly higher than for the approved products — so only a small amount of illegal use of older dicamba products can contribute disproportionately to off-site movement. Some folks told me there have even been aerial dicamba applications, which is strictly forbidden. This is not only unfortunate, but it is also illegal, and a few bad actors can make the situation worse for everybody.

Let me close by saying I understand the concerns and emotions that are going on. In 1996, when we launched Roundup Ready® soybeans, there were issues and concerns as well. And that technology has proven to be extremely popular and successful. Ironically, some of the loudest critics of the new Xtend® technology are the same individuals who criticized Roundup Ready® twenty years ago.

Importantly, what I heard from the vast majority of the growers, consultants and academicians that I’ve met and spoken with is this is an important tool and it can be used effectively and safely.

As a company, we are committed to being part of that effort to both investigate what is really going on and finding solutions to effectively address these problems — so that farmers have access to the tools they need to deal with weeds. I appreciate the temporary pause announced by the Missouri Department of Agriculture last week and their focus on reducing risk from temperature inversions, and importantly, eliminating the in-crop use of unapproved products.

Monsanto licensed the dicamba gene from the University of Nebraska back in 2005. We have spent many years developing and extensively testing both the Xtend® trait in soybean and cotton for crop safety and the XtendiMax® with VaporGrip® formulations to minimize the potential for off-site movement. I have great confidence in the technology, and I want to stress how important it is that growers and applicators who use our product follow the label instructions and any local requirements.

The product label is the definitive source of all application information, and can be found at: Customers with questions or concerns — whether related to weed non-performance, dicamba-tolerant crop response or off-target movement related to XtendiMax® — should call 1–844-RRXTEND.

If growers or applicators have questions, we want to hear them. Our ears are open.

Last Friday, both Arkansas and Missouri made announcements related to dicamba. Click here for our statement on Arkansas and here for our statement on Missouri. Also, I encourage farmers in Missouri to watch and share this new video from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Robb Fraley

Written by

Former CTO of @MonsantoCo. Raised on a family farm. Avid gardener. Advocate for agriculture & innovation. @LinkedIn Influencer, @WorldFoodPrize laureate.