Protecting Crop Protection

Jun 03, 2022

By Jason Jenkins

When northeast Oklahoma farmers Pam and Steve Snelson ordered soybean seed last October, they had devised a solid plan for success in 2022. Little did they know concern for a beetle would nearly derail their season long before the planter ever rolled.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new seven-year labels for Corteva’s Enlist herbicides that contain 2,4-D choline—but with county-level bans in many states intended to provide additional protection to the endangered American burying beetle.

The development sent growers who had planned to use Enlist products, including the Snelsons, scrambling for alternatives. Eleven weeks of uncertainty ensued as EPA reviewed more data, eventually restoring Enlist access in most of the counties at the end of March.

The Snelsons and other soybean growers collectively exhaled. Had they wanted to ride a rollercoaster, they would’ve visited an amusement park.

“The EPA nearly took a tool out of our toolbox,” says Pam, who serves on the American Soybean Association Board of Directors. “This experience has been both eye-opening and unsettling.”

Crop-protection products in the United States seem to face a nearly endless cycle of regulatory and legal battles. The registration and re-registration process is practically continual, and label amendments and litigation can pop up at almost any time. The impact of these decisions has only been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chain disruptions and manufacturing and transportation delays have led to decreased product availability and increased prices.

As soybean growers enter the 2022 growing season and look beyond, their greatest concern is meaningful and affordable access to post-emergent products to control weeds effectively and sustainably, says Kyle Kunkler, ASA director of government affairs.

“All of these unprecedented circumstances are causing a lot of anxiety,” he says. “We’ve been trying to communicate with regulators, encouraging them to first do no harm. As counterintuitive as it may seem, reducing access to those tools could inadvertently harm the environment as opposed to helping it.”

Fighting for the ‘Big Four’

Currently, four main chemistries are available for in-season application over soybeans: glyphosate, glufosinate, dicamba and 2,4-D choline. These “Big Four” each face a unique set of challenges that impact their overall availability, cost and use, Kunkler says.

Glyphosate—the first herbicide sprayed “over the top” with the Roundup Ready system more than 25 years ago—is still important to soybean farmers and others, including landscaping professionals and golf course superintendents. All of today’s herbicide-tolerant soybeans can be sprayed with glyphosate, and it’s a popular choice for terminating cover crops before planting.

Pandemic-related supply chain disruptions tightened supplies of glyphosate beginning early in 2021, and Mother Nature compounded the issue when Hurricane Ida forced the largest U.S. producer of glyphosate offline in August 2021. As a result, the herbicide’s availability continues to be impacted, and its price has skyrocketed.

In Oklahoma, the Snelsons say they’re paying $50 or more per gallon for glyphosate. Last year, that gallon cost $18. In West Tennessee, soybean grower Alan Meadows says his glyphosate cost has doubled.

“My retailers seem to be living hand to mouth, so to speak, when it comes to glyphosate,” says Meadows, who chairs the ASA Regulatory Committee. “If you’re spraying today, they have glyphosate. But there aren’t many willing to sell you 100% of your glyphosate for the year.”

On the regulatory front, EPA issued an interim decision to re-register glyphosate in January 2020, which prompted litigation that is still ongoing. ASA strongly endorses continued access to glyphosate, joining with nine other groups as defendant-intervenors in the case.

“We recently reaffirmed our support for the chemistry in court and how important it is both for production and conservation purposes,” he says. “It’s an essential tool that we will go to the mat for every time.”

Like glyphosate, glufosinate, the herbicide used in the LibertyLink weed management system, also has been impacted by supply issues. Kunkler says that of the Big Four, glufosinate seems to have been inordinately impacted. “Most producers are telling me they would love to buy it if they could get their hands on it,” he says.

Currently, four main chemistries are available for in-season application over soybeans: glyphosate, glufosinate, dicamba and 2,4-D choline. These “Big Four” each face a unique set of challenges that impact their overall availability, cost and use.

Scott Kay, BASF vice president of U.S. crop protection, says the company has experienced much higher demand than production has allowed.

“A lot of people have forgotten about it, but the Texas freeze in February 2021 hurt the whole industry because of all the inert ingredients that are produced by plants there,” Kay says. “When things froze up, those plants suffered damage. So, we were sitting idle, waiting on those ingredients, and our production was delayed.”

As with glyphosate, the market price growers pay for glufosinate has doubled or more since 2021. EPA issued an interim registration decision for the chemistry in 2017, indicating the product met the standard for registration under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. No major milestones or legal challenges are pending.

The same cannot be said for dicamba.

Ever since EPA first granted conditional, two-year registrations to dicamba products in 2016, the weed-management system has been under constant scrutiny. Yet soybean growers have adopted the chemistry in droves to combat herbicide-resistant weeds. In 2021, dicamba-tolerant soybeans exceeded 50 million acres, accounting for a majority of the U.S. crop, Kunkler says. In October 2020, EPA granted a four-year registration with some additional restrictions.

“It wasn’t a secret EPA was planning on reviewing how dicamba performed under the new registration,” says Kunkler, noting that ASA is involved in ongoing litigation on the matter. “Where I think we were caught off guard and somewhat frustrated was the way in which that review took place.”

He adds, EPA seemed resolute on putting greater restrictions on dicamba’s use ahead of the 2022 growing season—something that could be catastrophic considering the current availability of crop-protection products. In March, EPA announced new cutoff dates for dicamba use in Iowa and Minnesota. “If our growers would be required to pivot, there aren’t many alternatives out there right now,” Kunkler says.

In West Tennessee, Meadows’ entire 2021 soybean crop was dicamba-tolerant, something he adopted to combat herbicide resistance in populations of Palmer amaranth and other pigweeds. He says without dicamba, he would have a difficult time raising a soybean crop.

“If they take it and some of these other products off the market, it would totally change the way I farm,” Meadows says. “The plows have been parked here for a long time. If we have to go back to that, there’s no way that’s sustainable.”

While prices for all dicamba products have increased, production of the chemistry has been more robust. “There doesn’t seem to be an issue getting your hands on dicamba, but it’s going to cost you more than last year,” Meadows adds.

According to Bayer, makers of the dicamba herbicide XtendiMax, the company is doing everything it can to get tools to farmers and does not anticipate significant supply challenges in 2022. Bayer has also broadened its supplier base for glyphosate to source raw ingredients, adding more bulk trucks to deliver product more efficiently.

Supplies of 2,4-D choline also have fared better thanks to fewer disruptions to manufacturing, but prices are still up from 70% to 100% as compared to last year, Kunkler says. Of greater concern is the herbicide’s future registration status. The Enlist registrations issued by EPA in January were conditional-use registrations for in-season application on tolerant cotton, corn and soybeans. The underlying registration for the chemistry is under review, with a proposed interim decision expected in the third quarter of 2022.

Enlist was the first product to undergo EPA’s revised process that incorporates assessments for endangered species, says Cynthia Ericson, Corteva’s vice president of U.S. marketing. The additional step required more time; however, successfully completing the process has resulted in a legally defensible label for Enlist products.

“We couldn’t be more pleased that EPA moved as quickly as it did to review the data and to arrive at a ‘no effect’ determination,” she says. “We prioritized the American burying beetle and the eastern massasauga rattlesnake because they presented the majority of restricted acres. We have provided EPA with data on other species to support removal of county restrictions where they remain.”

ASA advocates for a science- and evidence-based regulatory system. “We were pleased that EPA worked quickly to restore access to Enlist where the science and data supported it,” Kunkler says.

After enduring the uncertainty, the Snelsons were thankful the Enlist ban was lifted from their county in Oklahoma. Due to the June 30 cutoff for spraying dicamba, varieties tolerant to it aren’t a good option for their double-crop soybeans, which often aren’t planted until July. The Enlist system offers them effective in-season weed management for these late-planted acres.

“We’ve already been in touch with our chemical rep to get price information,” said Pam just one day after EPA reversed course.

ASA Director Pam Snelson (OK) spoke with RFD-TV in March regarding the relief her fellow Oklahoma growers feel now that EPA has lifted the Enlist ban.

Maximizing ROI in 2022

While the over-the-top products receive most of the headlines, they aren’t the only piece of the crop-protection puzzle affected. The cost of burn-down or pre-emergent products also have increased. Fortunately, there are many more options available.

“Work with your local retailer to come up with a Plan A, B, C and D,” says BASF’s Kay. “Be agile in terms of your program, and work to improve that return on investment. With commodity prices high, we see growers doing all they can to maximize their yield potential. We’re seeing demand outstrip our production of fungicides, so we flew 300 cargo planes loaded with our fungicide products into the U.S. to try and help.”

One product likely unavailable this year is the insecticide chlorpyrifos, which EPA banned in February. While a federal court denied two requests for a stay of the ban, a group of 20 agricultural organizations—including ASA—has filed a lawsuit against the agency.

“The punches keep coming, but we’ll keep fighting,” Kunkler says.

Myriad of Factors Bring Challenges to Agriculture

By Scott Gerlt

Supply chain disruptions have garnered attention since the Covid-19 pandemic began, and agriculture has not only had issues from the pandemic but many other factors that have created challenges: Hurricane Ida, which destroyed port facilities, tariffs and export restrictions, and most recently, international military conflict, to name a few.

Supply chain disruptions can manifest in two ways: lack of goods or services or an increase in the price of goods and services. The former has manifested in many ways in agriculture: Cooperatives have had trouble hiring seasonal labor to unload grain trucks; agricultural implements and parts can have long lead times; truck drivers are in short demand; certain herbicides and fertilizers may not be available, etc. While reports of these events are widespread, the impact is hard to measure due to a lack of data on shortfalls.

On the other hand, price increases have been widely reported. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) tracks prices paid by farmers. The overall index for prices paid in the U.S. crop sector has increased by 12% the past year. There has been wide variation within the categories, though. For instance, fertilizer has seen a tremendous year over year increase in prices. This is due to a number of factors: natural gas prices have risen, increased demand, China’s ban on exports, sanctions on Belarus, Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, and tariffs on imports. These factors have resulted in farmers paying over twice the amount for nitrogen from a year ago and 62% more for phosphate and potash. This underestimates the true price spike, as phosphate prices were already high heading into 2021 due to tariffs.

Likewise, diesel fuel prices rose dramatically. The 36% increase in the chart occurred before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On-farm diesel prices have risen by over 150% since last March in Illinois, according to USDA Agricultural Marketing service data. Russia historically exports 15% of world crude oil trade, so the disruptions have rippled through to fuel costs.

Furthermore, farm machinery production has faced many issues, such as lack of parts from suppliers, employee absenteeism and shipping issues that have increased costs born by producers. Farm chemical prices have jumped over 21% on average, although for particular chemistries price increases can be many times the average. Many variables have caused problems in this sector, including Hurricane Ida shutting down a major production facility in the U.S., international shipping issues and Covid lockdowns.

Multiple inputs have been affected by supply chain issues, and the ability to handle crops after they leave the farm has not been spared either. The American Trucking Association estimates the industry is short 80,000 drivers. Given that soybeans leave the farms on trucks, this issue directly impacts soybean delivery. In addition, container shortages have plagued shipping. For instance, container rates from China to the West Coast have gone from about $1,500 before the pandemic to rates that have topped $20,000. While most soybeans are exported in bulk, specific regions and types of soybeans do utilize containers.

The supply chain issues have been challenging for agriculture, but they are fortunately occurring at a time of elevated crop prices, which has helped cover some of the increased costs. However, this dependence on higher prices creates much greater risk for farmers, as a price drop after planting or a yield shortfall can cause an inability to offset the higher expenses. Most experts believe it will take some time to work through all these supply chain issues, which could lead to pressure on many inputs through at least the rest of the year.