Part 2. Herbicide Properties (Herbicide Fate in the Environment)

What happens to herbicides after they are applied? This two-part series discusses environmental factors and herbicide properties that influence the environmental fate of several herbicides used on range, pasture and natural areas .
   Figure 1.    Herbicides dissipate in the environment through absorption and detoxification by plants, volatilization, photodecomposition, and other degradation and transport processes. HB denotes herbicide.   (USDA Forest Service - Region 8 - Southern Archive, USDA Forest Service,

Figure 1. Herbicides dissipate in the environment through absorption and detoxification by plants, volatilization, photodecomposition, and other degradation and transport processes. HB denotes herbicide.  (USDA Forest Service - Region 8 - Southern Archive, USDA Forest Service,


The ideal herbicide is one that controls the targeted invasive plants for a desired period of time and then rapidly degrades or breaks down in soil to naturally occurring compounds.

Understanding how long an herbicide remains active in soil is very important. This determines the length of time invasive plant seedlings can be controlled and also influences how long a land manager must wait before seeding susceptible desirable plants on a treated site.

Herbicides vary in their potential to dissipate in the environment. As soon as an herbicide is applied to its target, several processes immediately begin to remove the compound from the site of application. This dissipation refers to the degradation, movement or immobilization of an herbicide in the environment or plant, and is the process called environmental fate (Figure 1).

Part 2: Herbicide Properties

Herbicide molecules are eventually decomposed to carbon dioxide (CO2) water, and salts through photochemical, chemical, or biological (microbial) reactions. When an herbicide degrades, it usually yields several compounds (metabolites), each of which has its own chemical properties including toxicity, adsorption capacity, and resistance to degradation. For example, aminopyralid (Milestone® specialty herbicide) produces no metabolites other than CO2 and ammonia (NH3), and has a low bioaccumulation potential. Chemical properties that influence herbicide degradation in the environment include the following parameters:

Water Solubility

One of the most important factors determining herbicide fate in the environment is its solubility in water. Water-soluble herbicides generally have low adsorption capacities, and are consequently more mobile in the environment and more available for microbial metabolism and other degradation processes. Table 1 shows solubility for seven different herbicides.

Adsorptive Potential

Adsorption is the attraction of ions or molecules to the surface of a solid is shown as a Koc value. After application many herbicides adsorb to clay and organic-matter fractions of soils with relatively poor adsorption to sand and silt soil fractions. Thus, the extent of herbicide adsorption increases as the percentage of organic matter and/or clay content increases. Herbicides with a high Koc value bind more tightly to soil. For example, glyphosate has a Koc of 24,000 and is tightly bound in most soils. Table 1 shows Koc values for seven different herbicides.


The average length of time (days, weeks, months) it takes an herbicide to reach one-half of the originally applied dose is an herbicide half-life. This value is determined by the herbicide molecule's susceptibility to chemical or microbial alteration or degradation. Half-life of a particular herbicide can vary significantly depending on soil characteristics, weather (especially temperature and soil moisture), and vegetation at the site. The herbicides chemical structure dictates how the herbicide will degrade in soil. Some herbicides are rapidly decomposed by microorganisms if the right populations are present and if soil conditions are favorable for their growth. For example, 2,4-D, and Milestone, Tordon 22K, and Transline specialty herbicides are decomposed by microorganisms. The chemical structure of 2,4-D, allows microbes to quickly detoxify the molecule into inactive metabolites. Table 1 shows half-life values for seven different herbicides.

Photodecomposition (degradation of an herbicide by sunlight) 

Sunlight intensity varies with numerous factors including latitude, season, time of day, weather, pollution, and shading by soil, plants, litter, etc. Studies of the photodecomposition of herbicides are often conducted using UV light exclusively. It is important to remember that UV light is present on cloudy days and can photodegrade herbicides sensitive to UV light. For most range, pasture and natural area herbicides degradation by sunlight is relatively minor importance in field applications.

Vapor Pressure (volatility)

The vapor pressure of an herbicide determines its volatility, a process whereby an herbicide changes from a liquid or solid to a gas. Volatile herbicides (those with higher vapor pressures) generally dissipate more rapidly than herbicides with lower vapor pressures. Volatilization increases with temperature and moisture. Volatilization is more common if an herbicide is applied to a inert surface likes rocks or gravel. Most herbicides are relatively nonvolatile under normal field-use conditions. Dicamba is an example of an herbicide that can volatilize under warm to hot temperatures.

Table 1. Solubility[1], adsorptive potential (Koc)[2] and half-life are three important factors influencing herbicide degradation and movement in soil. Values for seven different herbicides are shown [3].

[1] The larger the number the more soluble the herbicide is in water
The larger the number the tighter the herbicide binds to soil.

[3] Majority of values obtained from Herbicide Handbook, Tenth Edition. WSSA. 



Relevance to Field Applications

The question of how long an herbicide remains active in soil and how far it can move downward in a soil system is based on multiple factors, both chemical and environmental. Field studies are conducted on herbicides to measure their movement and dissipation under various conditions. For example, field studies conducted on Tordon® 22K and Milestone® specialty herbicides indicate that under dryland conditions dissipation of Milestone is relatively rapid, and the majority of both herbicides remains in the top 6 to 18 inches of soil. In these studies, Tordon 22K was applied at the maximum spot treatment rate of 2 quarts per acre in western Montana. In Manitoba, Canada, Milestone was applied at the maximum broadcast use rate of 7 fluid ounces per acre. The percent herbicide remaining in different portions of the soil profile and depth herbicide moved is shown in Figure 2. Neither Milestone nor Tordon 22K were detected in ground or surface water in these studies.


Figure 2. Movement and degradation of herbicides applied at field sties in Manitoba, Canada (Milestone® specialty herbicide) and Western Montana (Tordon® 22K specialty herbicide). Figures show the percent of herbicide remaining at various depths within the soil profile under different field conditions 90 days after application (90 DAA).


  • Water (rainfall or irrigation) is an important environmental factor regulating herbicide movement in soil. Precipitation is limited on most lands in the western United States reducing the potential for downward movement of an herbicide in the soil system.
  • Soil is an important environmental factor influencing dissipation and movement of an herbicide following application. Soil serves as both a physical, temporal, and chemical trap, filtering and slowing movement of the herbicide following rainfall events.
  • Herbicide properties that are most important in influencing herbicide degradation following application include solubility, absorption, and half-life. The majority of herbicides applied for noxious weed control are soluble in water, have a relatively low adsorption potential (with exception of glyphosate), and a moderate to short half-life in soil.
  • In general, the majority herbicides applied to range, pasture and natural areas remain in the top 6 to 18 inches of soil if they applied under non-irrigated conditions.
  • Improve your skills and expand your understanding of the science behind selecting, applying, and assessing the effects of herbicides. Explore TechLine’s “Understanding Herbicides” series. 

You might also like these articles from TechLine’s “Understanding Herbicides” series.

·       Effective herbicide use starts with the label

·       Introduction to herbicide formulations

·       Factors affecting herbicide performance

·       The influence of adjuvants on herbicide performance



Curran, WS. Persistence of Herbicides in Soil. Pennsylvania State Univ. Extension Agronomy Facts Pub. #36. Accessed 29 April 2015.

Dow AgroSciences. Personal communication on aminopyralid movement in soil in Manitoba, Canada.

Helling CS, PC Kearney, and M Alexander. 1971. Behavior of Pesticides in Soil. Adv. Agron. 23:147-240

Herbicide Handbook. 2014. Weed Science Society of America. Champaign Ill. P. 500.

Murray TR. 1999. Turfgrass Herbicide Mode of Action and Environment Fate. Univ. of Georgia. College of Ag and Environ. Sci. Accessed 29 April 2015.

Tu M, C Hurd, and JM Randall. 2001. Weed Control Methods Handbook. Tools and techniques for use in natural areas. Chapter 6. The Nature Conservancy. pp 6.1-6-13.

Watson VJ, PM. Rice, and EC. Monnig. 1989. Environmental fate of picloram used for roadside weed control. J. Environ. Qual. 18:198-205.



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Milestone and Vastlan specialty herbicides are not registered for sale or use in all states. Contact your state pesticide regulatory agency to determine if a product is registered for sale or use in your state.

Milestone and Opensight specialty herbicides: When treating areas in and around roadside or utility rights-of-way that are or will be grazed, hayed or planted to forage, important label precautions apply regarding harvesting hay from treated sites, using manure from animals grazing on treated areas or rotating the treated area to sensitive crops. See the product label for details.

State restrictions on the sale and use of Garlon 4 Ultra, Milestone, Opensight and Transline specialty herbicides apply. Consult the label before purchase or use for full details. 

Tordon 22K specialty herbicide s a federally Restricted Use Pesticide.

Always read and follow label directions. 

Some states require an individual be licensed if involved in the recommendation, handling or application of any pesticide. Consult your local Extension office for information regarding licensing requirements.