It will be 2008 before Mid-South rice farmers see the return of Collego to deal with late-season northern jointvetch. While the mycoherbicide (now known as Lockdown) has leapt registration hurdles on its journey back to the market, it's been unable to overcome manufacturing travails.
The latest delay wasn't caused by a lack of effort. But bringing a new herbicide to market was never going to be easy for Fayetteville, Ark.-based Agriculture Research Initiatives (ARI), a small R&D, bio-control company. In that sense, this is a cautionary tale about the difficulties involved in bringing a full-scale product back to the rice industry.
“Despite everything that's happened, farmers and consultants I've spoken with only reinforce my belief that this product is needed,” says Kelly Cartwright, ARI president. “The farmers need it and we want to supply it.”
Last summer, at a Wynne, Ark., field day, Bob Scott said Lockdown had performed well in field trials and was expected to be ready in 2007. “I get a lot of calls on late jointvetch,” said Scott, Arkansas Extension weed specialist. “We need a consistent product for that weed and this could handle it.”
Now, nearing mid-July, Scott is still getting calls on jointvetch and laments Lockdown's aborted launch.
“Just today I've had three or four phone calls on jointvetch in late rice. There's just not much that fits the situation. Producers can't use Aim, Regiment, Blazer — the cut-off date has passed. The rice has gone reproductive and using those products can damage the flag leaf. Lockdown would definitely fill a need.”
There were rice growers expecting to have Lockdown available this season. “They're disappointed not to have it, especially in northeast Arkansas where 2,4-D isn't allowed after April 15.”
When it finally hits shelves, Lockdown will be a regional product targeting five rice states: Arkansas (expected to be some 70 percent of the market), Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Although jointvetch infests roughly 1 million Mid-South acres, it isn't a problem in California or other rice-growing areas in the world.
Lockdown comes in a fine, granular form and is carried to the field in a bucket, mixed well with water, put in a spray tank and flown onto rice much like a conventional herbicide.
As for nuances, “we recommend it be put out as close to dusk as possible,” says Cartwright. “It's a living organism and needs as much free moisture as it can get in order to infect the vetch. By flying at dusk, you catch as much of the natural dew as possible during the night.”
Over the few days to a week after application, the fungus infects and grows throughout the jointvetch. About a week after the initial application, “normally, two to four, or more, lesions will develop as the fungus continues to move throughout the plant. The lesions will expand and, in about three weeks, the vetch typically will shut down.”
And if the plants are hit at the right stage — roughly 2 feet or less tall — the Lockdown fungus will kill them. If the vetch plants are huge, “Lockdown may not kill them but will normally severely cripple them. In those situations, the vetch will have limited seed production. And preventing the vetch, which produces tremendous amounts of seed, from seed production is the number one goal anyway. Dockage due to seed infestation is a farmer's biggest concern with the weed.”
The active ingredient in Lockdown was developed in the 1970s at the University of Arkansas. The product contains a living fungal organism that naturally attacks northern jointvetch. Fully registered with EPA in 1982 under a licensing agreement with Upjohn, the product was first marketed as Collego, becoming the first successful mycoherbicide marketed.
“Since it's a living organism it has to be handled a bit differently. This resulted in somewhat of an unusual learning curve for farmers and consultants,” says Cartwright (whose brother, Rick, is a University of Arkansas professor and Extension plant pathologist). “But it was very effective and rice farmers found that out quickly.”
Unfortunately, Upjohn — which marketed the product through most of the 1980s — got out of the bio-control business and, from the late 1980s through 2002, Collego passed around a number of companies before being dropped.
At that time, the mycoherbicide practically disappeared. The product's EPA registration was lost when registration fees were unpaid.
Several years later, Cartwright, who'd started ARI, became increasingly intrigued with bringing Collego back.
“I'd worked with Collego and other mycoherbicide in graduate school — particularly with my master's degree at the University of Arkansas. In fact, my advisor was George Templeton, the researcher who had spearheaded the product's original development. By early 2005, I thought reviving the product would fit ARI well.”
Meanwhile, more and more farmers and consultants were asking about the mycoherbicide. They remembered it and wanted it again.
“Even though the product is great, I knew that the size of the market had been a weakness for larger companies that had handled it earlier. The market is considered niche but sustainable. Estimates (for use) range from perhaps 30,000 to 50,000 acres annually, perhaps more depending on several factors.”
When Collego was available, Clearfield rice was yet to be introduced. Now, the herbicide-tolerant technology could use the mycoherbicide's help.
“Lockdown has an excellent fit in Clearfield varieties,” says Scott. “Along with hemp sesbania, northern jointvetch is a weed that (Clearfield herbicides) Newpath and Beyond are zeros on. Lockdown would certainly be able to clear up jointvetch in Clearfield, but it's good anywhere there are jointvetch escapes.”
Clearfield technology has become extremely popular in the Mid-South. But along with that popularity, “we began hearing from consultants that northern jointvetch was becoming a big broadleaf problem in many Clearfield acres,” says Cartwright.
“The control methods and stewardship guidelines that must be utilized aren't terribly effective in dealing with jointvetch. Many Clearfield producers were having problems mid- to late-season with jointvetch. And there weren't a lot of good options to control it.”
Normally used late-season, Lockdown could go out even earlier. “There are issues with current controls — including drift to non-targets and phytotoxicity. While there are effective controls available, Lockdown has a good, natural fit in the rice systems. And it fits to the point where ARI, as small as it is, could make enough money to sustain its availability.”
With an aim to get Lockdown to market, regaining EPA registration was vital. Since the registration fees hadn't been paid, EPA viewed Lockdown as an entirely new product.
“We had to go back through what can only be described as a daunting process concerning the registration of this product. But that certainly had to be tackled first. Some really good people at the EPA and the University of Arkansas … helped tremendously.”
Finally, in early 2006, Lockdown received full EPA registration. At that point, “everything was full steam ahead and we were hoping to get a small amount of product to the field last season. In fact, Bob (Scott) was already doing some field-testing along with Jason McGee, a northeast Arkansas rice consultant.”
Unfortunately, major health problems arose with Cartwright's young son. The family spent three months at a Little Rock hospital.
“It was probably a little ambitious to think we could have some product launch in 2006, but we wanted to try. But the health issues really knocked back our plans.”
Even so, field tests continued and “all turned out very successful. All the data showed this product works even later in the season.”
Last fall, ARI announced two formulations would be forthcoming: Lockdown XL and Lockdown Retro. Both are similar to the old Collego, “just tweaked a little. We thought 2007 would be our launch and targeted a 20,000-acre supply. That acreage target was conservative but enough for a roll-out.”
Marketing plans were made but manufacturing gremlins were lurking.
Unfortunately every manufacturer Cartwright tried proved ineffective. Repeatedly, batches of Lockdown were either never made, were unable to meet specifications or were contaminated.
“Overall, the manufacturers I worked with put solid effort into the process. But they kept running into pitfalls due to a variety of reasons.
“We've found the majority of manufacturing facilities we worked with are typically very adept with bacterial products. But Lockdown is a fungal product, much different in many aspects. The unfamiliarity caused a learning curve that proved too steep.”
After going through several manufacturing operations from last summer through winter, Cartwright approached yet another in February. The new manufacturer tried repeatedly to get the Lockdown production process to work.
“In May, we thought the scale-up and niggling issues had been dealt with.”
Not so. “The manufacturing facility ran into stumbling blocks — one after the other. Things were looking shakier by the day.”
Cartwright, feeling uneasy, didn't advertise the launch. And it's a good thing he didn't. “All the product batches ended up failures. Every single one tanked.”
By early July, Cartwright told the manufacturer to shut down efforts for the season. Even if a successful line had been completed, “by the time quality control was done and product shipped, it would be the third week of July. By then, the initial application would be on very large plants late-season. That isn't a good environment to launch a product into.”
Because of the product's special nature and Mid-South target area, Cartwright says Lockdown needs to be made in the Mid-South. “Among other problems, being a long ways from the manufacturing facility has proven to be a recipe for major problems, especially as facilities try to scale-up and learn the nuances associated with production. It's difficult to troubleshoot on a timely basis and facilities have many other products they're producing at the same time. The bottom line is that farming manufacturing can be risky.
“We're exploring the question of how we can finance and put in the necessary equipment to produce this product here. We'll get it done and intend to have product in hand several months prior to (the 2008 growing season).”