Summer Fungicides: Still A Difficult Sell
About a dozen years ago, Asian soybean rust (ASR) was working its way up to the U.S. from South America, where it had brought devastation to the Brazilian soybean crop. For a couple of years, retailers and farmers spent many hours learning about and preparing for what was assumed would be a cataclysmic disease invasion, while manufacturers geared up for unprecedented fungicide demand.
Thanks to a highly cold-sensitive spore, the U.S. has yet to see any sort of ASR outbreak. But in the process of education and preparation, the market grew to understand the potential benefits of fungicide use not just to suppress disease, but to bolster overall plant vitality. Manufacturers, in particular BASF with its Headline fungicide, began sharing research on yield benefits from applying fungicides regardless of disease pressure.
Market use of in-season fungicides, especially during the most recent boom years, steadily ticked upward as farmers in search of yield gain added fungicides to their arsenals. More money in farmers’ pockets led to more fungicide getting put down.
The yield results from farmers using fungicides has in general been positive, but the levels of benefit have been inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable. In a year of high disease pressure, or even high stress such as drought, the yield benefits shine. In a low pressure year, the yield bump is not as significant, and in some cases not enough to break even on the application.
“In our geography each year, we can get a seven- to nine-bushel response on average for corn, and somewhat better when disease pressure is higher,” says Jeff Nagel, crop protection manager at Ceres Solutions, Terre Haute, IN. Ceres has offered a fungicide program marketed as plant health and yield protection for 10 years, and at no time has the program proven consistently beneficial enough to farmer customers to move summer fungicides into the “must-have” services category.
“You need seven to eight bushels to cover costs, so to get the service in your favor you really need some disease pressure,” adds Nagel.
So, given the market doldrums that have been sitting like a storm cloud over agriculture for more than a year now, one could draw the conclusion that the outlook for summer fungicide application in 2016 is less than stellar.
Jason Paris, manager of northern crop protection at MFA Inc., Columbia, MO, is among the more pessimistic. “My expectations for fungicide applications in 2016 aren’t much,” says Paris. “With the current ag economy, the producer is looking to cut every chance they can, even when it doesn’t make the most agronomic sense.”
Paris also notes that MFA sits in the center of weed resistance territory, so he does not anticipate cuts coming from herbicide programs. “So when it comes time for fungicide applications, the crop is going to have to be looking pretty good before anyone will spend any money on those products.”
And in general, retailers we talked to said they are bracing for, and would not be surprised if farmer-customers ultimately take the scalpel to the fungicide budget. However, last season’s fungus epidemic and a few years of consistent use during agriculture’s recent boom years has a growing number of farmers ready to stick with the plan and apply fungicide this summer, and some retailers and fungicide manufacturers cautiously optimistic about hanging on to early orders.
“I have been surprised a bit about how much this market is holding together so far,” says Andrew Fisher, fungicide product lead for Syngenta. “Of course weather, markets and other factors can change things almost overnight, and financials will also weigh heavy on fungicide decisions. But from what I have seen over the past five years from growers is that the market is more elastic. Historically, when crop prices dropped, the fungicide application was abandoned first, but think it has transitioned.”
Syngenta conducts “elasticity” studies every year to determine how likely growers are to stay the course with fungicide programs. “We’ve seen a transition where increasingly growers have experienced the benefits, and don’t leave the check strips in anymore. They believe in the return fungicides bring as far as increased yield.”