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Missouri Farmer Today reports:

The Missouri state legislature is moving forward with a measure that would significantly increase penalties for illegal herbicide application, in the wake of widespread off-label use of dicamba herbicide last year.

As part of the battle against resistant weeds, Monsanto released its new dicamba-tolerant Xtend soybeans, but for last year's growing season, the Environmental Protection Agency had not yet approved a corresponding herbicide label for the product.

Some producers still planted the soybeans and applied older, unlabeled and illegal herbicide formulations. Hundreds of Missouri farmers filed complaints with the Missouri Department of Agriculture about dicamba herbicide drift damage, likely the result of illegal spraying.

There also appear to be instances of applying illegal rates of the off-label herbicides, University of Missouri weed scientist Kevin Bradley says.

"It really made us look bad, gave us a black eye," he says.

Bradley says the issue remains a key topic heading into the 2017 growing season.

"Dicamba and Xtend soybeans are definitely the No. 1 topic," he says.

There are indicators this year could be a much better experience, even if unknowns remain. The federal government has now approved three corresponding dicamba products, which are supposed to be less susceptible to drift. Also, producers and those in the industry seem to have learned from the experience of 2016, Bradley says.

"Will the new formulations make a big difference, and will we be able to use it correctly?" he says. "I hear a lot of growers and retailers who are hearing what we're saying."

Bradley testified during hearings for Missouri's House Bill 662, which would increase the penalty for knowingly using herbicides illegally and using old herbicide formulations from the current fine of $1,000 total to $1,000 per acre applied.

"It's a significant deterrent," he says. "I don't think we're going to have a lot of problems with farmers doing that (if the measure is passed)."

Bradley says his testimony was about providing information instead of taking a side, but he says it appears the measure will be approved by the Missouri General Assembly.

Rep. Don Rone, a Republican from Portageville in southeast Missouri, introduced the bill. Southeast Missouri's fertile fields were the epicenter of the dicamba issue in Missouri.

After introduction Jan. 31, the Missouri House voted 147 to 8 to approve the bill Feb. 23. The bill then moved to the Missouri Senate, where it had its first reading Feb. 27.

B.J. Tanksley, state legislative affairs director for Missouri Farm Bureau, says his organization supports the stronger penalties and has been involved in the process to get that legislation passed.

"We saw some negative effects of that (off-label herbicide use)," he said at Missouri Farm Bureau's annual legislative conference in Jefferson City.

Tanksley said the bill is tightly focused on a specific situation and would address "intentionally using a herbicide for an area where it was not intended."

Bradley says he is hopeful that this will be a better year for dicamba use and the dicamba-resistant soybeans.

The goal, he says, is "making sure we manage that trait right so we don't get any more bad press."

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