Georgia in 2016 had no official off-label complaints of drift damage relating to dicamba, and state officials are surprised.
They say pre-emptive training and growers’ cooperation helped avoid what easily could have been an agricultural disaster in the state.
“We have not received any drift- or damage-related complaints for in-season use, or during the time the crop is emerged, for dicamba this year,” said Tommy Gray, who is the director of the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Plant Industry division.
Georgia farmers and others farmers across the South this year and last could grow Monsanto’s new Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybean and cotton varieties, which tolerate over-the-top application of dicamba, a new tool and technology that shows promise to help growers fight hard-to-control weeds. For now, the Environmental Protection Agency has not cleared a new, or old, dicamba formulation for use on the new seed technology. Until the EPA registers it for such use, a dicamba application in-season is off-label and not legal.
It is estimated that 648,000 acres, or half of Georgia’s cotton crop this year, was planted with Xtend cotton. With that amount of acreage planted to a seed that can handle a dicamba application in-season to kill tough weeds, why or how were there no off-label dicamba complaints in Georgia? It had to be tempting to growers to use.
In his 28 years working pesticides for the GDA, Gray said he has never experienced a situation this complicated, where a seed technology like this was available to the grower without an approved label for the herbicide related to it. Auxin herbicides if used unwisely can really do a bad number on broadleaf vegetables, other specialty crops and non-auxin-resistant agronomic crops.
Concern for this unusual situation started “as far back as 2010 when the registrants began talking to us about this new technology. In the beginning, we were really excited about it because of the weed-resistance problems here in Georgia. We felt like this is going to be a valuable tool for our growers. But as we thought about it more and started having discussions with guys like Stanley Culpepper (University of Georgia weed specialist), we became increasingly concerned because of our crop diversity … and we began to see, to be frank, the possibility of a real disaster developing,” Gray said.
From 2010 to now, Gray, other state officials, UGA Extension’s Culpepper and industry reps continued to discuss the best ways to handle the new auxin technology in Georgia. From those early meetings, it was determined a proactive educational effort was the best frontline approach to avert the ‘disaster.”
In winter 2015, they rolled out “Using Pesticides Wisely,” a training program offered statewide to educate growers on the right way to handle and apply pesticides in the state, and a training Gray wants to require growers and pesticide applicators to take before they can use the new auxin herbicide formulations in the state, if and when they get registered.
The training was developed by Culpepper and it is based on his research on preventing off-target pesticide movement in Georgia, something he has concentrated on for more than six years, much of it in anticipation of the new auxin seed traits and herbicides coming to the market.
The training was offered this past winter, too, and to date 1,499 Georgia growers and 2,114 people in all have had the training, Culpepper said.
“The growers made outstanding and wise decisions when it came to using dicamba in the state, and I hope these trainings in some cases helped them do that,” Culpepper said.
Gray said Georgia farmers are not shy about reporting drift complaints, and the department gets about 30 to 50 drift damage complaints a season. But he admits, “The ones we get are usually the bad ones. They're the ones that the Extension service couldn’t get worked out with the grower or applicator or an insurance agent has tried to mediate and just were not able to resolve it,” he said.
Culpepper said he received no calls or complaints either about dicamba-related drift damage during this year’s cotton-growing season in Georgia, but he got plenty of calls, as he does each year, to investigate other herbicide-related incidents, which is a major part of his job. He said since the trainings, overall drift-related complaints he receives have dropped by almost half.
Culpepper said the educational effort for the new auxin technology is not over. In what he calls “an unprecedented effort,” UGA Extension county agents will offer to visit the farmers of the people who attended the pesticide training and meet with them and their pesticide applicators face-to-face to provide more information and to help them develop a pesticide management program specifically for their operation and situation.
EPA issues Compliance Advisory
Though Georgia had no in-season dicamba complaints filed with the state, the situation wasn’t the same in some other agricultural states. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency felt compelled to issue a Compliance Advisory, which says, “EPA and state agencies have received an unusually high number of reports of crop damage that appear related to misuse of herbicides containing the active ingredient dicamba."
“Based on cropping patterns and the number of acres of non-resistant crops adversely affected, extension experts across the country believe that illegal use of dicamba products on adjacent or nearby dicamba-resistant cotton and soybean crops caused the observed crop damage,” the statement continues. “The EPA has not registered any dicamba herbicides for application at planting or over the top of growing cotton or soybean plants, including crops genetically modified to tolerate dicamba. Therefore, any application of a dicamba product during the growing seasons of cotton or soybean crops is unlawful under FIFRA.”
In Missouri, 117 complaints of alleged misuse of pesticide products containing dicamba were reported, the EPA advisory says, with similar alleged misuses reported in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
A decade ago, Georgia had the first documented case of glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth, but it was there before then. The resistant seed bank was high across the state’s cotton country and cotton growers were losing against the weed. Aggressive, science-based management strategies were needed. UGA Extension partnered with industry then to develop a multi-pronged approach using residual herbicides, different modes of action and hand weeding to suppress the resistant weed. And it worked. Georgia growers responded to the challenge and showed their willingness to learn new ways of doing things in their fields, Culpepper said. Georgia growers now have options on how to control cotton weeds; it is still too costly to do it right but the alternative is not growing cotton economically at all in the state.
Gray and Culpepper met in Atlanta in early October with some of Gray’s counterparts in other states who wanted to learn more about how Georgia is handling the auxin issue and about the pesticide training they offered growers. “Other states do a great job with their pesticide regulatory programs, but we felt sharing our proactive approach to this situation would be helpful to them and maybe could have prevented some of these issues. ... Also, the EPA is really taking a hard look at what we’ve done here Georgia. They came down a few weeks ago to talk to us about the training and actually went out to look at some cotton and pigweed in the field."
Both Gray and Culpepper can take credit for leading the aggressive educational effort to stem what could have been a disaster in Georgia. But they both say the real credit lies with the growers who chose to use pesticides wisely in the state.
Gray and Culpepper also say the new auxin herbicides and seed traits are welcomed by row crop growers who need them, but Georgia growers know the days of a one-shot cotton or soybean weed control approach are long gone. The need for comprehensive weed management education and responsible pesticide application practices in the state will be just as important decades from now as they are today.