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2,4-D herbicide drift damage stuns east Arkansas cotton

The young, east Arkansas cotton farmer turns in a slow circle trying to find a plant within his line of sight that isn't “smoked” by herbicide drift. There isn't one — leaves in the top third of every plant are off-color, curling and blistered.

He says excuses won't cut it. He wants those responsible for the 2,4-D drift that's harmed more than half his crop held liable. After that, he suggests banning or restricting 2,4-D might be a good idea.

“This is beyond ugly and has got to stop,” he says throwing up his hands in frustration. “We're trying to make a living and this bush-league (stuff) starts happening. It's the same story up and down the road here. It's on everyone's cotton.

“Considering how bad farmers' money situations are, there's no room in the budget for this. There's no room for error. We've got enough going against us without someone hurting us like this. I don't need any more help into the red.”

Many acres hurt

2,4-D, a member of the chlorophenoxy family of herbicides, was first introduced in 1946. At one time, 2,4-D was the most widely used herbicide in the world and it's still going strong.

Among other uses, the herbicide functions well in a variety of crops: soybeans, rice, corn, wheat, sorghum, sugar cane, soybeans, and pasture. But not cotton.

This is easily seen in east Arkansas where multiple counties have been affected by the recent drift. After visiting with Extension agents and consultants, Bill Robertson says there's easily upwards of 200,000 to 250,000 acres of damaged cotton in Craighead, Greene, Poinsett, Mississippi and Cross counties.

“The young cotton is taking it on the chin,” says the Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “Thankfully, for now, the fruit looks okay.

“When I went back to some of the worst-hit fields, it appeared the fruit was showing more symptomology. But I've seen fields in Arkansas that looked worse and still held fruit and made a good crop.”

However, there are no guarantees, says Ken Smith, Arkansas Extension weed scientist. “Will it hurt yields? It's unpredictable. Often, cotton will grow through 2,4-D damage and do well. Other times, bolls will turn long and slender and won't open. But as bad as they are, you can't look at leaf symptoms and say, ‘This crop is ruined.’ It just has to play out.”

Even so, Smith would be surprised if fields that were “really hammered” get a top yield. “Maybe if they'd normally yield 1,200 pounds they'll now yield 800 pounds. But that's just for the worst fields.”

One Poinsett County consultant says damage he's seen is mainly at growth points on plants. “Now, though, it's really starting to show up in the older cotton. Some of the plants are holding firm. But other areas of the field have squares flaring, changing color and looking puny. That doesn't mean they'll kick off, but they look iffy.”

Foliar symptoms simply aren't a good predictor of yield, says Ford Baldwin, consultant and Delta Farm Press contributor. “This damage is real and no one is exaggerating it. But it seems to be badly affecting only younger, more actively growing cotton. I don't think most of the older, more mature cotton will be hurt. However, several fields of later-planted cotton remained in an active, vegetative growth. The drift had whipped it up, scrapped it up pretty well. Those plants won't grow out of the damage immediately.”

The young farmer — one doesn't want to be identified due to potential legal action in the off-season — has mulled this over plenty. “Some experts have said to not worry about the leaves. But, honestly, how can anyone know if our yields have been hurt? We may have been looking at a record crop and now it's just a good crop. Well, is there someone responsible for making up the difference?”

Temperature inversion

If there is, it's unlikely they'll be found out. “For something so widespread, it won't be pinned down to a specific application,” says Mike Thompson, director of the Arkansas Plant Board Pesticide Division. “It's almost assuredly something that was applied in a temperature inversion.”

Baldwin says the Arkansas Plant Board, responsible for investigating drift complaints, has gotten 100-plus 2,4-D drift calls. Most haven't been formally investigated yet.

That means, says Thompson, “it's hard to say very much except there are many more (reports) than normal.

“Generally, when we see something as widespread as this, it's probably not due to a specific application as much as it is volatilization. When you have a product like 2,4-D put out in an inversion…it can sit on top of, say, 100 acres.

“So there's 100 acres of material just waiting to move. When the wind hits, off it goes. Based on information from Extension and our field inspectors, that's most likely what happened.”

Unless everyone is “completely missing the boat,” Smith, who has checked fields throughout the damage zone, agrees with the inversion theory. And he doesn't believe the damage came from a single event.

If all the damage came from a single application, “it's the biggest drift situation I've ever seen. What I strongly suspect, and the Plant Board will get to the bottom of it, is that we had an inversion over a couple of days. Rice or pastures were probably being sprayed with 2,4-D by a plane.”

It wouldn't take much product to produce damage that typically begins showing up five to seven days after exposure. In a recent cotton newsletter by Robertson, a rate as low as .01 was cited. Smith says that may be generous.

“It may be even be lower — maybe .0001. All you need is an extremely low rate. At .01, a lot of times you'll see swelling of stems and the area the square sits on. In the fields I've been in, I didn't see that swelling. If there's anything positive about this, it's that it's a low rate that hit.”

However, Robertson says drift fields closer to the attempted application often receive stronger rates and, thus, have a greater chance for a yield impact.

Calming rancor

Regardless, Smith agrees with Thompson that it will be difficult to track where the 2,4-D application(s) came from. “The Plant Board has its work cut out for it on this. I know the cotton farmers certainly want to know who's responsible…There's a lot of anger out there.”

Baldwin says because “tensions are so high and nerves frayed,” he's more concerned about drift than ever before. He cautions against an “us-versus-them situation. We don't need a stink between rice and cotton farmers. We can't go down that road.”

If all farmers were seeing healthy profits, “a lot of this would just pass by. But now, whether you're talking to a cotton farmer or a rice farmer, they look at you like a deer in the headlights and say, ‘This drift could put me out of business. I'm barely hanging on as it is. Even if I make a perfect crop, it's still a struggle.’

“Some things get said in the heat of battle that aren't followed through on once it cools off. Agriculture doesn't have enough clout when everyone is pulling on the rope together. If we get a really divisive situation it isn't healthy.”

The young farmer doesn't disagree, but he's not ready to make nice just yet.

“One of the disturbing things is my crop isn't growing out of (the damage). It still looks awful. And we're more than two weeks out from when we found it right after July 4. We were told the spraying was done over 25 days ago — probably closer to 30 days. Thinking about it turns your stomach.”

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