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A herbicide is a pesticide used to kill unwanted plants. Selective herbicides kill certain targets while leaving the desired crop relatively unharmed. Some of these act by interfering with the growth of the weed and are often based on plant hormones. Herbicides used to clear waste ground are nonselective and kill every plant with which they come into contact.

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The first widely used herbicide was 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, often abbreviated 2,4D. It first saw widespread production and use in the late 1940s. It is easy and inexpensive to manufacture, and kills many broadleaf plants while leaving grasses unaffected. Its low cost has led to continued usage today. Like other acid herbicides, current formulations utilize either an amine salt (usually triethyl amine) or ester of the base compound. These are easier to handle than the acid.

There are earlier examples of cultural controls, such as altering soil pH, salinity, or fertility levels to control weeds.

2,4D exhibits relatively poor selectivity, meaning that it causes stress to non-target plants. It is also less effective against some broadleaf weeds, including sedges and many vinous plants. Many other herbicides have been developed to address these limitations.

The 1970s saw the introduction of atrazine[?], which has the dubious distinction of being the herbicide of greatest concern for groundwater contamination.

Glyphosate[?], which is nonselective, was introduced in the late 1980s but did not become popular until the development of crop plants that were resistant to it. The pairing of the herbicide with the resistant seed led to the consolidation of the seed and chemistry industry in the late 1990s.


Herbicides are widely used in management of landscape turf and in agriculture. They are used in total vegetation control [tvc] programs for maintenance of way for highways and railroads. Relatively smaller quantities are used in forestry, pasture systems, and management of set-aside areas for wildlife habitat.

Classification of herbicides

Herbicides can be grouped by chemical family, mode of action, and type of vegetation controlled.

They are also classified by their activity:

  • Contact herbicides destroy only that plant tissue in contact with the chemical spray. Generally, these are the fastest acting herbicides. They are ineffective on perennial plants that are able to re-grow from roots or tubers.

  • Systemic herbicides are foliar-applied and are translocated through the plant and destroy a greater amount of the plant tissue.

  • Soil-borne herbicides are applied to the soil and are taken up by the roots of the target plant.

  • Pre-emergent herbicides are applied to the soil and prevent germination or early growth of weed seeds.


Most herbicides are applied as water-based sprays using ground equipment. Ground equipment varies in design, but the greatest number of acres is sprayed with self-propelled sprayers equipped with a long boom (typically 60-80 feet) with flat fan nozzles spaced about every 20". Towed, handheld, and even horse-drawn sprayers are also used.

Herbicides can also be applied aerially using helicopters or airplanes, and can be applied through irrigation systems (chemigation[?]).


  • Control is the destruction of unwanted weeds, or the damage of them to the point where they are no longer competitive with the crop
  • Suppression is incomplete control still providing some economic benefit, such as reduced competition with the crop
  • Crop Safety, for selective herbicides, is the relative absence of damage or stress to the crop. Most selective herbicides cause some visible stress to crop plants.

Some major herbicides in use today

  • Glyphosate[?], a systemic nonselective herbicide used in no-till burndown and for weed control in crops that are genetically modified to resist its effects
  • Paraquat[?], a nonselective contact herbicide used for no-till burndown and in aerial destruction of marijuana and coca plantings. More acutely toxic to people than any other herbicide in widespread commercial use.
  • 2,4 D[?], a broadleaf herbicide in the phenoxy group used in turf and in no-till field crop production. Now mainly used in a blend with other herbicides that act as synergists.
  • clopyralid[?], another phenoxy herbicide used mainly in turf, rangeland, and for control of noxious thistles. Notorious for its ability to persist in compost.
  • metoalachlor[?], a pre-emergent herbicide widely used for control of annual grasses in corn and sorghum; has largely replaced atrazine[?] for these uses
  • dicamba[?], a persistent broadleaf herbicide active in the soil, used in turf and field corn
  • picloram[?], a phenoxy herbicide mainly used to control unwanted trees in pastures and edges of fields.
  • atrazine[?], a triazine herbicide used in corn and sorghum for control of broadleaf weeds and grasses

Other herbicides of historical interest

  • 2,4,5T was a widely used broadleaf herbicide until the 1970s. The manufacturing process for 2,4,5T contaminates this chemical with trace amounts of dioxin, which is a human carcinogen. For this reason 2,4,5T is no longer used. It was largely been replaced by dicamba[?], which is still in widespread use.

  • Agent Orange was a herbicide blend used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War as a defoliant. It was a mixture of 2,4,5T, 2,4D, and picloram; because of dioxin contamination it caused serious illnesses in many veterans who were exposed to it.

See also; Weed control, weed, farming, agriculture, FIFRA[?]- Federal insecticide, fungicide, and rodenticide act (USA) (also covers herbicides despite the title), Organic farming, Organic gardening

External links

Manufacturers and distributors





Regulatory policy http://www.epa.gov

Usage statistics http://www.nass.usda.gov

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