Dicamba, One of the most popular broadleaf herbicides, has been used by growers for effective weed control in corn. But in 2013, dicamba-resistant soybeans are expected to reach full commercialization, opening additional avenues for a product already familiar to many producers.

Biotechnology is one tool that chemical companies are using to expand the uses of familiar crop protection products. Add breakthrough research that has improved basic formulations, and chemistries that may have been around for years are still finding a place on the farm.

The flow of new active ingredients in the crop protection market has slowed to a trickle, due in part to the industry's shift in research dollars to biotechnology. Patents for existing chemistries are expiring, and companies are finding more of their portfolios stocked with off-patent chemistries that still have a market.

“A good chunk of our crop protection portfolio contains off-patent products,” says Scott Hutchins, global leader of crop protection research and development for Dow AgroSciences. “We are now focusing on how to improve the attributes of existing chemistries, whether that is usability, increasing the effectiveness of the product, reducing the application rate, or a combination of attributes.”

Improved formulations

In fact, Dow AgroSciences has created a “post-discovery innovation pipeline” to address how it can make current active ingredients work more effectively or attain better applicator and regulatory attributes.

One example of the group's work is the new Lorsban Advanced, a replacement for Lorsban 4E, which has been on the market for about 30 years. The original Lorsban product has been off patent for years, yet Hutchins' group improved the current version. “The new product has a number of attributes that rejuvenate one of the oldest and most efficacious products in our portfolio,” Hutchins says.

“Customers identified odor as a concern, so we looked at how we could adjust the formulation,” says Brian Timmerman, product manager for Lorsban Advanced at Dow AgroSciences. “We did not change the active ingredient. Instead we changed the formulation using proprietary technologies to make it a low-odor, water-based formulation.”

But changing a product with a familiar brand name also takes a bit of consumer education, especially if a product's formulation or use rate has been changed. “We have to be cognizant of the changes we make and ensure that our customers understand that the product has changed,” Timmerman says. Lorsban Advanced has the same use rates of previous formulations, and that was not done by accident. “It's simply easier for our customers and doesn't create confusion in the market,” he says.

However, not every new formulation has the identical use rates, which makes reading and understanding the label even more important.

Pioneer plans to introduce its Optimum GAT herbicide-tolerant trait in 2009. It combines glyphosate tolerance and acetolactate synthase (ALS) tolerance in a single trait. That means a new mix of existing active ingredient products, glyphosate and ALS, will bring producers proven chemical products for use in a new trait technology.

“We continue to look at existing active ingredients in crop protection products,” says Wayne Schumacher, marketing manager for Optimum GAT, DuPont Crop Protection. “This entire area is being studied intently, renewing and bringing existing chemistries to market that give producers weed control options.”

One reason post-discovery research is popular is that it allows companies to quickly respond to current pest control needs. “It's often easier to reformulate rather than come up with something new for incremental growth or emerging pest issues. It's certainly a lot quicker,” Hutchins says. “The regulation scrutiny is generally less complicated compared to new active ingredients.”

However, research into new active ingredients will continue, “because we can't take a chewing [insect] insecticide and make it work on sucking insects,” Hutchins says. “Companies will still work on new active ingredients.”

New technologies

As scientists understand the formulation of a basic molecule, they are better able to make modifications to the end product. “Part of our work involves looking at new technology in other areas, including pharmaceuticals, consumer products and cosmetics,” Hutchins says. “We're looking at applications in parallel industries that may benefit our agricultural products.”

One example is the controlled-release encapsulation concepts in the pharmaceutical industry that may show promise in agriculture. Dow AgroSciences' new nitrogen stabilization product (that will be sold under the trade name Instinct when federal registration is received) uses encapsulation technology.

“And then there's the emerging arena of nanotechnology,” Hutchins adds. “We see a lot of potential for possible uses of this technology, but it is cutting-edge research at the moment.”

Base-product adjustments

Crop protection companies also have adjusted some of their base products to fit current uses. “The demand for bulk chemical systems has made them an area of tremendous research,” Hutchins says. “A product that was formulated for a 2½-gal. jug may not work in a 500-gal. bulk storage tank. We have to understand the attributes of the product and how it can be adjusted to fit our retailers' systems.”

The familiar glyphosate also has seen some adjustments. Dow AgroSciences launched its first glyphosate product in 2000. Since then, the company has moved to a dimethylamine (DMA) formulation. “For us, it allowed us to maintain a higher load formulation and lowers the viscosity of formulation, which makes it easier to pump in lower temperatures,” says Dave Ruen, field scientist for Dow AgroSciences.

That will also benefit a tankmix with 2,4-D, another familiar chemistry. The salt formulation of Durango DMA is highly compatible with 2,4-D, because many 2,4-D products are formulated as a DMA salt. Another future weed control will be the Dow AgroSciences herbicide-tolerance (DHT) trait technology, which will combine aryloxyphenoxypropionate (fop) herbicide and 2,4-D tolerance.

Lactofen, the active ingredient in Cobra, has been around for more than two decades as an effective postemergence herbicide for soybeans. Yet the herbicide has also shown, and is labeled for, white mold suppression. It also is being studied for suppression of sudden death syndrome, says John Pawlak, product development manager for Valent. “It's gaining some attention in areas where white mold and sudden death syndrome are a problem,” he says. “Two thousand eight was the first year we've had a lot of large-scale demonstration plots where the disease pressure was high and we were able to demonstrate Cobra's disease suppression ability. Some universities, like Iowa State and Ohio State, are also researching this use pattern for Cobra.”