Formulation’s Vital Role


More than a half-century into the development and growth of the modern lawn care industry, lawn care professionals have become proficient in selecting and using chemical control products. They carefully consider the efficacy of the products they apply to clients’ lawns, along with timing and rate of application, speed of control and product cost.

The product selection process would seem to be simple given the many time-tested chemical products labeled for use on turfgrass and ornamentals. But, it’s this richness of product that some pros often find daunting. And that’s not just the richness of active ingredients (A.I.’s, the molecules that actually kill weeds and pests) but of the formulations, as well.

Formulations? For simplicity’s sake, let’s define formulation as “the total product package,” meaning the A.I. and carrier along with wetting agents, spreaders, stickers, extenders and/or diluents.

Bob Albright, FMC’s senior global formulations chemist, says manufacturers constantly seek to develop chemical products that are effective and sustainable.

Formulation’s many roles

Formulation improves the properties of a chemical for application, handling and storage and may substantially influence effectiveness and safety, as well. Some formulations are more costly than others, some are easier to apply than others and some are more prone to drift than others.

Obviously, the formulation of every product is incredibly important, and figures largely in a lawn care company’s choice of product.

“Nobody can deliver a straight active ingredient,” says Bob Albright, senior global formulations chemist at FMC Corporation. “You need a formulation. The ingredients can be solids or a high concentration of liquids, but there must be a good way of getting a certain amount of the active distributed over a certain amount of property whether it is 1,000 square feet or an acre.”

In other words, the effectiveness of an herbicide is heavily dependent upon many factors, not the least of which is its formulation. One of the main components of a formulation is its carrier. The carrier can be water, a petroleum solvent or, in the case of a granular product, clay. And, as mentioned previously, it may also contain wetting agents, spreaders, stickers, extenders and/or diluents.

Albright says one of the goals of formulators is to get rid of as many solvent systems as possible “so you no longer have that pesticide odor.”

David Loecke, herbicide product manager, PBI/Gordon, adds, “California has been putting pressure on the industry to reduce VOC emissions. This is causing formulators and manufacturers to develop products to accommodate these lower VOC levels.”

FMC’s Albright and other formulation chemists also constantly seek to reduce phytotoxicity, improve worker safety and to develop more environmentally friendly chemical products.

“One of our goals, of course, is to come up with more sustainable products, more eco-friendly products even though we are in the business of killing weeds and pests,” continues Albright. To that end, he’s seeing less plastic used in packaging. Another goal is developing lower-volume products containing a higher concentration of activity to reduce the amount of water in products being shipped.

“Shipping a lot of water is a very unsustainable practice. Think about the energy costs that are involved, and the bulk storage,” says Albright.

“Formulation and packaging are kind of a chicken-and-egg discussion,” adds Nufarm‘s Brian Pike, director of product innovation, Nufarm Americas. “In some instances, a specific package design is desired, and the formulation will need to be developed to enable that packaging. In other instances, the formulation is the valuable portion and the packaging needs to be designed around it. Overall, they need to interact together to deliver the benefits to the customers without any issues.”

Formulation science advances

“I see a trend toward plant health rather than just control,” Pike says. “In this manner, I expect we will see future control formulations providing positive plant health benefits as they control the target pests.”

“One of the key trends I see in formulations is a continued movement to liquid EC or SC formulations,” he adds. “Historically, the active ingredients used could be modified to make them water soluble. However, modern actives are not as easily solubilized, which drives formulations to other forms. Because these forms are not soluble in water, agitation needs to rise over 24-plus hours to ensure that the micro-particles in the spray tank are homogeneously distributed.”

In spite of these technical challenges, more chemical control products in SC formulation continue to be introduced into the lawn care market.

PBI/Gordon’s Loecke agrees that there is a trend toward more complex formulations, which is one of the company’s strengths. “PBI isn’t in the business of synthesizing new molecules. PBI has done very well taking existing active ingredients with individual strengths and combining them with other actives to better and more broadly fit a need of the end user,” Loecke says.

“It used to be there were very few formulations outside of water-based or emulsifiable concentrate (EC) liquids,” he adds. “Today, there are wettable powders, oil dispersions, water dispersible granules and suspoemulsions. This is because certain active ingredients are more sensitive to the formulation systems in which they are carried or certain systems are more expensive for various A.I.’s.”

Read more: Know Your Formulations

Britt Baker, senior development scientist, Bayer, says that newer chemistries and “much lower use rates” are among the most important trends in formulations. Bayer CropScience has a dedicated formulation team that develops products in-house at its Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, location. The team is dedicated to developing ES-specific formulations.

“We have to make sure we are developing formulations with robust application rates where our end users can easily measure products to put into their mix tanks,” explains Baker. “For crop formulations, a high-concentration product is easy to measure and use due to the large application areas. For LCOs treating turf and ornamentals, the high-concentration products are not always so easy to measure.

“Early in the development process we tailor our active ingredient rates to a level that can be easily measured by our end users, and then formulate to that specific active concentration,” Baker adds.

leaf-beakerCombo & improved formulations

Combination products constitute another growing trend within the industry, he points out. With the availability of post-patent chemistries there is a greater opportunity to mix these products with other active ingredients to expand the pests they control or to use them for multiple purposes on a single site.

Lawn pros have the option of purchasing various A.I’s separately and mixing them in their spray tank or buying prepackaged combinations of two or more herbicides, which is more convenient. An example of this is FMC’s Solitare postemergent herbicide containing the combination of sulfentrazone and quinclorac.

Many lawn care products are available in different formulations as each formulation offers unique advantages and disadvantages. For example, granular products are fast and easy to apply over large properties. However, granules can be difficult to apply uniformly, which is unlike sprayable forms of the same product.

Again referencing Solitare, FMC recently announced the product is available as a new water-soluble liquid formulation along with its dispersible granule product.

Another example is Bayer’s Specticle herbicide, which is available as Specticle Flo in lawn care, Specticle G for mulched areas and bare areas around plants and grasses and Spectacle Total for non-selective weed management.

Lawn pros should also be aware of changes in product formulation. Companies are constantly seeking to improve the performance of their products through formulation science.

PBI/Gordon replaced its Q4 herbicide with Q4 Plus with an improved formulation, which offers a wider window of control for mature crabgrass, says Loecke. Similarly, it replaced Pronto with New Pronto to position the product for the professional T&O market versus the consumer market.

“Beyond the information on the label, especially relating to exposure and safety,” Pike summarizes, “I believe that it is important for applicators to have a base-level knowledge of the various formulation types that are used and what makes them slightly different.”

Read more: Should LCOs use an amine or ester formulation for postemergence broadleaf weed control?