When new technologies hit the market, there will always be a learning curve.
The flood of drift complaints in Arkansas that propelled the State Plant Board’s move to ban dicamba last week is no exception, according to Ty Witten, North American Crop Protection Systems Lead with Monsanto.
“This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s not unexpected that we would hear some grower challenges and complaints,” Witten said in an interview on June 28.
Asked if he was confident about the future of the new dicamba technologies, he was clear: “I believe in the technology of dicamba … Absolutely, I believe the technology will be here long-term.” He added: “I think that growers are innovative and astute. I think they will find a way to manage and understand the value on their farm. We need to be patient and deliberate in our actions, we need to take responsibility for ourselves, and respect our neighbor, as with all things. I think that’s just part of the learning curve.”
See the full interview below (edited for length and clarity):
Is Monsanto working with BASF in dealing with the drift issue in Arkansas? What is that interaction like?
I am not at liberty to say. However, while BASF’s Engenia is the only approved dicamba product in Arkansas, the Xtend seed trait for cotton and soy is still Monsanto’s. What goes on in Arkansas really affects grower choice at large for agriculture, and even though our product is not involved, we’re very keen because our seed product is absolutely involved. We are aligned with BASF on the majority of things, and our regulatory pieces are obviously in check as we look at weed resistance management in trying to have on-target applications. How the industry at large works together, I think, is an important component of on-target applications for all herbicide and overall weed resistant management. Industry alignment is important for use of pesticides, period, and managing resistant weeds.
What was your reaction when the drift reports started coming in from Arkansas?
I was around and involved in the early days with the advent of Roundup Ready in the late ‘90s – not with Monsanto but from an extension and research perspective – and a lot of this feels the same. You had growers that were spraying wrong fields and we had drift, and there was a lot of rhetoric, including from this area (Arkansas). This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s not unexpected that we would hear some grower challenges and complaints. That happens with these types of chemistries, whether we’re talking 2,4-D or dicamba. The symptomology with these is different than with glyphosate or glufosinate, because of the unique symptomology that a growth regulator provides on an auxin-type chemistry. People can point to it and say, ‘That’s what it must be; it must be that new dicamba,’ whereas glyphosate injury or others could just look like general crop stress.
I grew up in the Texas High Plains, and I remember seeing lots of cotton damaged due to 2,4-D throughout my lifetime due to corn and wheat and milo being sprayed, because it is very clear that you have that type of herbicide injury for most cases. Other herbicides can mask themselves or be assumed it was dicamba but it really wasn’t, and we’re seeing some of that as well. Even last year, growers – sometimes, just like the rest of us in life – don’t make the best choices. As we move forward in our diverse cropping environment where more traits are available for growers – whether we’re talking about Liberty, 2,4-D, or dicamba traits and the ones coming – we’re not going to be in a homogeneous, Roundup Ready day anymore. In terms of pesticide application, for 20 years we’ve been doing one thing. Now, we have a new population of growers, and even some older growers. Even on my farm, I forget really quickly things that I have to do, and it comes back to how I manage chemistry diversity to ensure it stays where I want it to be. You’ve got to be careful and you’ve got to take some precautions.
We have an education opportunity that the industry, as well as pesticide boards and academics, need to enforce and offer to our growers and applicators in a new way. A lot of pesticide applicator licenses are renewed every five years, and we need to continue our concentrated effort. From Monsanto’s perspective, this is important in light of the way this product came to market with the delays we saw, and how it came quickly with the complexity of the three things that would be a label (a conventional label, a supplement, and now a website), the restrictions on tank mixes, and approved nozzles. All of those pieces came on so late in the season. That’s why we hired 130 additional people just for this season to help manage and educate applicators and support the product. I think that education and awareness is a place that we need to concentrate.
Because of what happened in Arkansas (in 2016), we did not train or educate, because we did not have a chemistry product there to train on. We made that choice. I don’t want to draw the correlation that Monsanto didn’t train there, so that’s the problem. That’s not the case, but we weren’t there and we don’t have that necessary support network.
Do you think the fact that approvals came so late might have affected things as far as applicators feeling rushed?
Always within ag, we’re always rushed. As farms continue to get larger, and hired hands and staff continue to get less, and we have more equipment that is capable to cover more ground over a shorter period of time, environment is always our biggest bane. We don’t get the rainfall we need or we get too much, or we get the wind we want and then we don’t get enough, and that’s always a constraint that growers have. Unfortunately, the mindset is, ‘I’ve got to hurry, hurry – I’ve got two hours to go – I’ve got to spray.’ That goes back to that education that says, ‘I do still need to slow down and be deliberate with my actions, and if I’m not mixing up at the field site, I still need to reassess before I flip that switch at the field.’ The knowledge base of that driver is an education step, too. ‘I may be great, but if I have my hired hand go out and do it, have I given him or her the tools to make that deciding factor on the edge of that turnrow before they flip that switch and start spraying?’
I think that awareness is a paradigm shift from what we’ve done for the last 20 years. We’ve kind of gotten away from some of those things, because drift masks itself and everybody had Roundup Ready, so it was not an issue. Now we have some compounds that are coming back and being used in a different way, versus early corn and early milo that we used in-crop. The symptomology when drift does occur points to ‘somebody did something wrong.’
What about the weed scientists we’ve spoken with who have visited some Arkansas growers that have been accused of drifting, and insist they’ve followed the label exactly?
I agree; I’ve been on a few calls, although I can’t speak to those specific situations because I have not been there. Even though Monsanto has provided and what the science shows is the lowest volatility product out there, you can have environmental conditions that create inversions, or a potential for volatility. These things happen even as early as mid-afternoon to early evening. If you start to apply herbicides at nighttime or really early in the morning, especially in and around some of these areas along the Mississippi River, inversions exist, and so being cognizant of that is important. Inversions are difficult to detect.
We had a very large grower in Mississippi, who said, ‘We’ve had great success with the (XtendiMax) product this year, however I’m taking extra precautions.’ He said, ‘Do you remember those little orange and red stink bombs you used to buy when you were a kid? It’s July 4th time, and my hired hands and applicators have them on their sprayer. They light a stink bomb before they start applying, and it gives me a good visual on where the wind’s moving: Is it moving enough; do I have an inversion condition where the smoke is staying low? When my field becomes larger, and it’s a 150- or 180-acre field, I might drop another smoke bomb on another pass and see what’s happening. Those are 50 cents a pop, so depending on the size of the field I might spend an extra buck on that field, but I can absolutely know what environmental conditions exist at the time of my application, and I can make good decisions that are very cheap and very visual for my applicator to make a call on.’
I’ll give you another example. This was a caller in Iowa. They called the 1-844–RRXTEND number, and our field engagement specialist followed up. The grower did everything correctly. He actually said, ‘I left a little bit of buffer upwind,’ because his neighbor had susceptible soybeans that were not Xtend, and he wanted to make sure he didn’t have any drift. So he left a 90-foot swath, and in more favorable conditions he went to apply that 90-foot area, mixed up a very small gallonage in his sprayer, and went out and sprayed. We got a call from him saying, ‘I drifted on my neighbor and he’s showing symptomology; I need you to come out and help me.’ So we went out to that applicator, and as it turns out, as we’re walking through with him, he explained that he had been doing some other spraying and had ‘a little AMS in my tank, but it was only two gallons.’ We went to his mix site that he did for that swath, and it turned out that he had a 2% solution of ammonium sulfate in that tank. It’s on our (XtendiMax) label that you can’t have ammonium sulfate, because it increases volatility, and even small amounts will do that. That grower’s eyes opened wide, and he said, ‘I didn’t know a little bit left in my tank mattered.’ It was a good experience, meaning that with something negative that happened and a grower did everything he could, we listened and helped him walk through. He won’t make that mistake again, and I think he’s going to communicate the experience with his community.
Those are some examples that go back to that comment you’ve heard from the academic in Arkansas. A lot of these are grower learnings and opportunities as we introduce new products and new application requirements. Some of them will require further investigation to understand environmental conditions.
The beautiful and difficult thing about biology is things happen. Environmental conditions cause different circumstances, and we need to understand what that is. Drift is going to continue to happen, and we need to minimize it, give people the best tools so they can make good calls, and be able to give guidance on fact-gathering for the future. It’s never zero (drift), even though I wish it was. Even when I spray lawn at home, I’ve got to be careful of my roses and other things in my lawn and garden when I’m spraying the stuff I got at Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Have you gotten any indications from Arkansas on how soon we may hear something on a potential ban? Also, we’ve seen drift reports coming from other states like Tennessee. Will the effect of a ban trickle over to other states?
I don’t have an answer on what we think the speed and urgency that Governor (Asa) Hutchinson as well as the administrative body will engage or act. I don’t know, but I would assume they would try to do it sooner than later, as applications are continuing. If they feel this is prudent for the state, then swift action would be important to mediate the response you’re looking for.
On what we know from Tennessee and Missouri, I don’t know what they are going to do. I hope that folks will continue to not make a knee-jerk reaction, to get real data and information before you make an action change to confirm or disprove that applications techniques were followed or that the correct purchase of herbicide was used definitively. Those things are really important as we weigh into this, because taking grower choice away and grower opportunity for technology away is never a good place. Responsibility lies with that applicator, and we need to give them opportunities to have successful applications and provide them with tools so they can do that. But at the same time, they need to take responsibility for what they’re doing. We’re willing to listen and help and be involved.
The viewpoint I’m getting formally and on the record, and the line of sight that I’m getting to our hotline is not the same picture I’m hearing from the media. The responses I’m getting (on drift) are fractional in terms of what are being reported in the media. We are getting some (calls about drift) and are following up on those. Overwhelmingly, there are learning opportunities with those applications versus saying that there’s something faulty with the product. I would love for our customers to call in if they have any questions on the performance or their experience, because the more calls I go on and the more people are willing to call, we can learn something and answer questions more definitively. But right now, the line of sight that we have is fractional in terms of what feels like is being reported in the media or in the Twitterverse today.
Are most of the calls you get, then, relaying positive feedback on XtendiMax, or how would you characterize what you’re hearing?
As I travel around and have been in the field, and my team has been in the field with growers, it’s pretty broad that growers are having success with the product. I think they are being cautious, and I think people are looking for success. I also think when a grower is successful, they’re not tweeting out, ‘I was absolutely successful.’ It’s just like anything else: When there’s a problem, you hear about it, and it sounds loud versus the ones that aren’t (having problems). I want to think that from the experience I have that overwhelmingly, it’s been a positive experience across the board. In Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and these other states that are heavily weighted in cotton and started applying early, we’ve heard no media reports or noise out of them. Texas is a huge state that is coming on board now – the High Plains is the biggest patch of cotton out there – and while they don’t have proximity to soy, they’re successful. We’re still hearing success in Ohio and other places. I don’t have an answer why some areas have problems and other don’t. We will continue to investigate and work closely with our state agencies if they ask us to help and provide information.
If the ban does go through, likely it will take time to implement. Will most growers already be done spraying for the season at that point?
I don’t have a hard number, but I believe most applications at this time are going to be done. We have some double-crop situations that obviously will occur and will increase opportunity. Depending on the growing area, the cotton window is a lot larger than the soybean window. Soybean goes up to R1, and cotton goes full-season and seven days pre-harvest, so we do see applications occurring longer in cotton. But for the most part, the bulk will be done if there are further delays. We are about to hit July, and after July 15 there’s very little that goes out.
What do you recommend for people who have been drifted on and have damage?
In any and all cases, if you have purchased Xtend seed, and you’re not happy with your experience you need to call 1-844-RRXTEND. If you have any issues or questions, that’s the place and that’s the way we dispatch folks. We brought those 130 people on board to do that. That phone call is answered during the work day here in St. Louis, and if you can’t leave a message and someone will return your call in the morning. If the call gets dispatched to our field engagement specialist it’s returned within 48 hours. If an on-farm visit is warranted, that field engagement specialist will work with the applicator or grower to visit the farm and provide an education opportunity. These are not the dicamba police (laughs). Our first and foremost purpose of this was predicated on the requirement for understanding weed resistance management. We need to follow up on every issue when the grower is not satisfied with the weed performance. That really sparked the need to have this (hotline), but we’re also supporting off-target movement of our applicators and customers that have used the product.
We still don’t settle claims at all. It’s the responsibility of the applicator if they have any off-target movement, but we would love the opportunity to sit down, educate, and provide information on success of the program and the product. If we can’t give an answer, we will direct that caller to the appropriate individual. In some cases it may be the state extension or state pesticide board to lodge their complaint.
Are you confident about the future of Xtend, XtendiMax, and Engenia?
I believe in the technology of dicamba. I initially started work on dicamba cotton at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006. I’ve been around this dicamba product from a biotech perspective for more than a decade. I believe in the technology; I believe it’s important for the growers to have it. I think it will be ultimately successful. I don’t want to have our head in sand to think there are not issues and learning opportunities for growers to have good experiences, but I do believe this technology along with our competitor technology, such as 2,4-D, are important for growers to have. I don’t say you have to have Xtend – Enlist is a good technology as well. Growers need new tools to manage resistant weeds and be successful on their farm.
Absolutely, I believe the technology will be here long-term. I think that growers are innovative and astute. I think they will find a way to manage and understand the value on their farm. We need to be patient and deliberate in our actions, we need to take responsibility for ourselves, and respect our neighbor, as with all things. I think that’s just part of the learning curve.
(Editor’s Note: Read Monsanto’s statement in response to the drift issues in Arkansas.)