American Electric Power’s blueprint for rights-of-way brush control
In southeastern Ohio, rolling hills are abundant and blanketed by a variety of hardwood tree species. This combination in the landscape keeps the work interesting when managing the transmission of power to area residents.
Dale Hopkins, senior transmission forester with American Electric Power (AEP), knows it only takes one of these trees falling over to knock out power to the customers in his territory. So he works diligently to make certain the transmission rights-of-way are properly maintained. But like most in his position, vegetation management is only a fraction of the responsibilities that make up his day-to-day duties.
Hopkins’ blueprint for brush control starts with a trusted partnership he has formed with his contract applicator, allowing him to worry less about vegetation and freeing up more time to focus on other pressing issues.
The terrain here makes aerial applications the only efficient option to treat rights-of-way. “To get in there with spray trucks and try to do high-volume foliar applications would be time consuming and dangerous,” Hopkins says. “And we’d need to use a lot more product to get the coverage we need.”
Hopkins contracts with Helicopter Minit-men Inc., an aerial application contractor, to treat and monitor the transmission lines he manages.
“We rely on Minit-men to really be a turnkey application contractor for us,” Hopkins says. “And that’s what sets them apart. I know I can give them the lines I want treated and they will take it from there.”
Managing the process from landowner notification to herbicide application
But there’s more to it than just spraying herbicides, explains Clarence Wissinger, partner with Minit-men.
“We’re unique in the extra service we provide to utilities like American Electric Power,” Wissinger says. “Dale hands us the spray list, and we take care of everything from courthouse paperwork to landowner notification and, of course, herbicide delivery, mixing and application. We also provide detailed treatment maps and follow up our treatment with reconnaissance of treated and untreated rights-of-way to identify any additional areas that might need to be treated or re-treated.”
Additionally, Helicopter Minit-men is part of Noxious Vegetation Control Inc. (NOVCO), a herbicide distributor, of which Wissinger is also a partner. It means herbicides are always on hand. NOVCO supplies the herbicides used in AEP’s program in returnable, refillable containers through Continuum® Prescription Control & Container Management System. It adds an extra layer of accountability when it comes to inventory tracking and eliminates container rinsing and disposal while improving worker safety when using herbicides in the field.
To treat the hardwood species, including poplar, oak, cherry and ash, that frequently reside on AEP’s rights-of-way, Minit-men uses a mix of 7 fluid ounces of Milestone® specialty herbicide, 6 pints of Garlon® 3A specialty herbicide, 2 quarts of Tordon® K specialty herbicide and 5 fluid ounces of surfactant per acre.
“We only use branded herbicides,” Wissinger says. “I will not put a generic product in our tanks. “We absolutely count on the support of our manufacturer sales rep, David Jay, and the backing of Dow AgroSciences, in the case an issue might arise. In this line of work, that’s a no-brainer to me.”
Minit-men helicopters drop a 1/64-inch layer of the spray mix across AEP’s transmission rights-of-way over three passes to treat the wire zone from border to border. Each helicopter is equipped with a 100-gallon tank of spray mix, or enough to treat 4 acres on one flight.
“When the pilot lands to refill the tanks, our ground crew performs like a pit crew — they have a fuel hose and a herbicide hose ready to couple to the tanks. It typically takes about 90 seconds to get them back in the air.”
It’s important that Minit-men is as efficient as possible when weather conditions are suitable to spraying, because aerial spraying doesn’t come without some downtime because of weather. Wissinger is adamant about only spraying in the right conditions.
“If we see leaves moving on trees, we don’t fly,” he says. “We will never push the envelope with weather conditions just to keep crews working — the potential for drift is just too great.”
There’s another reason they need to stay on the ground occasionally. “We will treat with utility vehicles, as well, when we encounter landowners who refuse aerial spraying on their property,” Wissinger says. “But, fortunately, we find most landowners are pretty amenable to it, which we attribute in part to educating them with our landowner notification program.”
Selectivity to desirables is still important
Even high-volume aerial applications can be selective to desirable species on a right-of-way. You just need to work with the right herbicides. And that’s vital to Hopkins.
“I only like to use selective herbicides on my transmission lines,” Hopkins says. “We need to knock out the hardwoods and broadleaf weeds, but we also want the grasses and other desirable species to thrive so we’re not turning these areas into monocultures. Doing so creates an attractive habitat for wildlife and looks better for the adjacent landowners, as well.”
Beyond using selective herbicides on existing utility lines, AEP goes the extra mile when building new lines.
“We go so far as to reseed any new rights-of-way we create with a mix of diverse desirable species — we’re not just throwing down some fescue,” Hopkins says. “We try to create a more appealing and diverse habitat for wildlife like deer and pollinator species.”
Another environmental concern is always top of mind for Hopkins, considering the location of many of his rights-of-way.
“There are many farms with grazing animals throughout this area where our rights-of-way are,” Hopkins says. “With cattle prices where they are, landowners are justifiably concerned over the safety of these animals. So we are sure to use herbicides that have grazing tolerances so as not to disturb their pastures.”
Staying ahead of the curve on brush control
Hopkins and Wissinger are both open to trying a new product, assuming it meets all their criteria for use. Three years ago, Jay and Dow AgroSciences approached them about putting out test plots of a new high-load triclopyr formulation called Vastlan™ specialty herbicide.
“I told them it would potentially replace Garlon 3A in their preferred brush control tank mix of Milestone, Garlon and Tordon, at a reduced rate of 4.5 pints per acre,” Jay says. “But beyond the reduced rate, it would also offer other benefits — like a reduced signal word and lower volatility.”
Interestingly enough, NOVCO worked with Dow AgroSciences to put out the first test plots of Garlon® 3A specialty herbicide when it was introduced back in the 1970s. Now, they agreed to put out some of the very first test plots of the replacement on 54 acres of AEP rights-of-way.
“I rely on David to bring us the latest products and help us stay ahead of the curve with herbicide technology,” Hopkins says. “We worked with Minit-men to apply the tank mix with Vastlan and then gather the data to be sure it’s compatible with our vegetation management goals. Getting new herbicides on the ground early means we’re ready to implement and start realizing additional benefits when it’s commercially available.”
Now, three years later, examining the test plot results show how well Vastlan performed. And Hopkins and Wissinger saw the benefits Jay talked about over that time period.
"The control results with Vastlan have been great, and we plan to make a full conversion from Garlon 3A,” Wissinger says. “And the fact that it doesn’t have the ‘Danger’ signal word is a big deal for us. It means it’s safer for the guys to handle. But also when we are dealing with landowners and we go to show them the herbicide label, there isn’t a giant ‘Danger’ staring back at them.”
Wissinger mentioned another more unexpected benefit when working with Vastlan™ specialty herbicide.
“In testing, we also noticed a real difference in odor between (Garlon) 3A and Vastlan,” he says. “Vastlan has a much lower odor when you’re working with it or after you apply it. That’s a real benefit when you’re applying at high volumes because it leads to fewer complaints from landowners after an application goes out.”
Walking the test plots, areas intentionally left untreated are overtaken with dense brush, while treated areas reveal the opposite, browned-out trees and brush, with an understory of grass flourishing. And that makes Hopkins happy.
“We couldn’t ask for better results than that,” Hopkins says. “That’s how we want our rights-of-way to look.”