Page last updated: Tuesday, 25 October 2022 - 2:13pm

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Damage caused by herbicide drift

Herbicide drift can cause significant damage to crops. Below are four ways that damage can occur.

Production of driftable sized particles

Most agricultural herbicides are applied as fine droplets produced by hydraulic nozzles on boom sprays, mostly set up to deliver droplets in the 150-300µm range. Droplets from 100-200µm in diameter usually stick to the first surface they encounter but droplets larger than 500µm are likely to bounce off leaves and end up on the soil or lower canopy and droplets smaller than 50µm are likely to float around the target plant and drift off.

The smaller droplets provide better coverage which is important when the target plant is small, when the herbicide is poorly translocated or when low carrier volumes are used. The larger droplets result in greater interception or less drift, but the poorer coverage may need to be compensated for by using translocated herbicides or higher carrier volumes. Most commercially available nozzles produce a range of droplet sizes so there is usually a proportion of very fine droplets that may drift.

For emulsifiable concentrate sprays, drift reducing agents such as Nalcotrol® may reduce drift. For aqueous sprays the addition of a drift reducing agent may increase the production of droplets that are less than 100µm diameter and cause greater drift. Also, shear stresses in recirculating pumps (especially centrifugal pumps) can reduce the effect of polymer drift reducing agents.

Transport of herbicide away from the target area

Under the influence of gravity, all droplets fall at a speed called sedimentation rate. Large droplets fall faster than small droplets. Within a few centimetres of the nozzle the movement of most droplets is determined by gravity, their buoyancy and wind.

The higher the droplet is released, the further it will move away from the target area because the wind speed is slower close to the ground and there is more time for the wind to move the droplet before it lands. Therefore, the amount of pesticide that drifts off target is closely related to the boom or flying height. Halving the height of the boom above the target will reduce drift by about 60%. In situations where drift can cause problems the boom should be operated at the lowest height possible for the nozzles and spacing. Decreasing the nozzle spacing will allow the boom to be operated at a lower height.

Large droplets contain more herbicide but they tend to land close by, whilst small droplets contains less herbicide but are moved over greater distances by the wind and are more likely to be affected by turbulence that may carry them upwards. (Note: About 2-10% of spray volume of aqueous formulations will be in drift-prone droplets - less than 100µm diameter - with normal flat fan or cone nozzles on aircraft and less on boom sprays. Emulsifiable formulations of herbicides will produce about twice as many droplets in this size range with the same equipment).

The size of the area sprayed also affects the amount of herbicide leaving the target area because successive runs contribute to drift.

As small droplets drift away from the sprayed area they normally disperse to non toxic concentrations within 100-200m downwind. Under low level temperature inversion conditions the droplets may be trapped in a layer of cool air close to the ground and move greater distances at higher concentrations. These conditions are most likely to occur when there is little or no wind, clear skies, the weather is influenced by a high pressure system and the ground is cooler that the surrounding air in the evening and may last until the sun warms the ground on the following day or until the wind speed increases. (Most claims for drift damage are associated with inversions). This can be made worse by valleys that can channel drift laden air for a kilometre or more.

Interception or absorption of the transported herbicide by the off target species

As droplets leave the target area they usually decrease in size as the carrier evaporates. This affects the deposition on off-target plants and generally reduces the damage that would otherwise be predicted by drift. Damage is a function of the number of droplets impacting on the plant multiplied by the concentration of herbicide in the droplet. Small droplets that have been produced by the evaporation of large droplets carry more herbicide than small droplets produced at the nozzle.

Contact information