Herbicide shortages that surfaced in 2021 may not be resolved in 2022
Planting a herbicide-tolerant trait without being able to apply a matching postemergence herbicide is akin to throwing a party and not inviting the guest of honor. Yet, that’s what some farmers faced in 2021 when they couldn’t access the herbicide they wanted.
“In general, there were shortages of products, such as glyphosate (Group 9) and glufosinate (Group 10),” says Phil Krieg, Syngenta agronomy service representative. “There were times when you could not pick them up [chemicals] from the retailer the way you used to.”
Herbicide shortages likely won’t get any better in 2022. “This is probably not going to correct itself until the 2023 crop year,” says Mike King, executive vice president of operations for Atticus. It’s prompted Atticus to book most of its anticipated 2022 product inventory several months earlier than it normally does.
Accordingly, King advises farmers to also book 2022 product early.
“I would encourage early engagement and early commitment if they want a reliable chemical supply,” he says.
Why Short Supplies?
Like many other products, COVID-19 disrupted the agricultural chemical supply chain, says King. Still, it’s not the sole reason.
“It has been a series of dominoes that has gotten us to where we are,” says King.
Tight chemical supplies are initially rooted in 2017 developments in China and India, where chemical companies source many active ingredients and raw materials, according to King.
“Both China and India imposed new environmental regulations that resulted in many audits and plant shutdowns,” he says. “A number of plants didn’t survive. Some that did survive combined with other companies. The closures and consolidations ultimately tightened up [herbicide and herbicide ingredient] supplies and increased prices to some degree.”
Tariffs placed by the United States in 2018 on Chinese-sourced goods also helped spike current tight supplies. This spurred higher demand for new federal registration requests from Chinese and Indian herbicide component manufacturers, says King.
Previous government shutdowns had already stressed the Environmental Protection Agency. “All these companies trying to register new products just further compounded the issue,” King says.
Tariffs also drove a trade imbalance that helped create a shortage of shipping containers.
Shipping costs for a container that houses about 40,000 pounds of chemical components normally hover around $8,000. Now, it is heading toward $30,000. This particularly hits generic herbicides hard, since they do not have as high of margins to absorb the increased cost as do other compounds, King says.
Trucking issues — driven by an industry-wide labor shortage — have also aggravated supply shortages that COVID-19 further compounded. Higher labor costs coupled with increased fuel costs before COVID-19 have also spurred higher product costs,
An extreme frost event in Texas in February also hampered raw material supplies for agricultural chemicals, says Scott Kay, BASF vice president of U.S. crop protection.
“It was like a perfect storm for some of our products,” he says. “What it did was put us into supplier two and supplier three for some raw materials.” He notes that BASF has taken immediate steps to bolster its North American supply chain through a three-year $260 million investment.
“All these stress fractures have led to the current state,” says King. “This also includes higher chemical prices paid by farmers. They need to create a demand plan with a reliable chemical supplier, rather than make opportunistic product decisions based on price. Meanwhile, suppliers should be held accountable and not exploit a situation of already high emotions with premium pricing.”
What to Do?
Place genetics first when selecting soybean varieties for 2022, says Randy Niver, a DeKalb/Asgrow agronomist.
“Ultimately, that’s what pays the bills,” he says. Although chemical shortages complicate matters, multiple herbicide-tolerant trait stacks give farmers several postemergence herbicide options, he adds.
On the herbicide side, Krieg advises visiting with retailers to verify if product will be available and forming a plan for anticipated chemical shortages.
He also advises farmers to review 2021 weed issues and ways to prevent them from occurring in 2022.
“One of the most important things a farmer can do after harvest is to evaluate what the field looked like from the combine,” he says. “Were there any problem weeds and if so, do [herbicide-tolerant] technologies need to be switched? Do preemergence residual programs need to be more robust, with more herbicide sites of action?
“It’s important to be honest,” Krieg continues. “If there are some weeds slipping through, weed control the following year only becomes more difficult.”
These weeds likely include the twin pigweed terrors of waterhemp and Palmer amaranth.
“We’re also seeing an uptick of some of those large-seeded broadleaves, such as cocklebur and morning glory that are sneaking through residual products aimed at Palmer amaranth and waterhemp,” he adds. “We are having to revise the programs, with more [herbicide] sites of action.”
Glyphosate-resistant grasses such as johnsongrass have surfaced in Tennessee. So far, they haven’t infested Midwest fields. Still, it’s a concern, Krieg adds. “Johnsongrass is kind of an old player, but it’s not being controlled in roadsides,” Krieg says. “Its kissing cousin, shattercane, also is slipping through and is a very prolific seed producer. Fall panicum is another grass that, if not managed, can quickly overcome a crop.”
Farmers who are prompted to use another product if a familiar one is not available should review the label to ensure optimal weed control, says Leon Hunter, a Syngenta agronomy services manager.
“There are quite a few new products on the market today that really aren’t new,” he says. “They have just changed ratios of what’s in them. Sometimes you assume you’re getting a lethal dose in a premix that may not control targeted weeds.
“I encourage customers to know what they are buying and understand the rate structure of the active ingredients to make sure weed control occurs.”
Ever heard of the 80/20 rule? It pops up in various contexts, such as 80% of church donations made by 20% of congregants. Or, teachers spend 80% of their time with 20% of their students.
The rule applies to farming, too.
“If you think about the product placement tools that we have today, most people would just manage for the 80% of their farm that has really good soils,” says Justin Welch, Syngenta digital ag strategy, U.S. Seeds. “The other 20% faces different challenges.”
Still, those acres count.
“It’s important for growers to pick the right genetics and populations, even on tougher ground like high-clay or sandy soils,” Welch says. “There may be vastly different recommendations for growers than what they do on the other 80%.
“One thing we’ve seen is that if a grower follows these recommendations, they can see a big uplift on what yield potential will be, even on those low-end yielding fields,” he says. “The tools we use today are built around maximizing all of those acres, and not just that top 80%.”