With 10% or higher cotton yields and a dramatic reduction in pesticide usage, John Starnes and Joe McFerrin eagerly participate in their region's required boll weevil eradication program. They are joined by growers from the Carolinas to California — strong believers in what's become one of the most successful government-managed ag programs ever.
Boll weevil eradication (BWE) has given growers bright spots when low cotton prices have held profits down.
“It's nice to see cotton opening at the top of the plant,” says Starnes, who farms in partnership with McFerrin in a West Texas community known as Cotton Center. “Fruit is in every position it should be on the plant. Boll weevil eradication is definitely helping our yields by at least 10%.”
Starnes and McFerrin were among early proponents of BWE in Texas during the late 1990s. They had seen the results of similar programs in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and parts of other states. Stories of massive beet armyworm damage, apparently accelerated by early weevil eradications in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, did not turn them away from the program.
Boll weevils arrived in the U.S. from Mexico in the 1890s. Since then, they've caused $14 billion in yield losses and control costs to the U.S. cotton industry, according to the National Cotton Council, Memphis, TN.
Boll weevils use their snouts to chew into cotton squares or developing bolls. They can cover up to 160 miles per year. Prior to BWE, many growers were forced to spray 10 or more times a season to hold them back.
BWE is administered by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Malathion is the insecticide used to control weevils. The overall program involves state or regional BWE foundations that operate detailed spraying programs in regional BWE zones created by grower referendums. Foundation personnel monitor weevil traps throughout cotton fields every 10 days or so to gauge the success of eradication practices.
APHIS supplies some of the equipment, technical and administrative support and funds up to 30% of program costs. Growers pay for about 70% of program costs. Some states and private foundations also provide financial assistance.
For Starnes, McFerrin and other Texas producers in the program, the cost is $6/acre for dryland cotton and $12 for irrigated. Costs are much higher in the Midsouth and Southeast, where a cost of $14-24/acre is common, says Jim Brumley, executive director of the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Montgomery, AL.
Starnes and McFerrin rotate cotton, corn, grain sorghum and wheat. Cotton is about 90% irrigated. 2002 was their second year in BWE for fields in one county and the third in another.
“Aerial spraying in a neighboring control zone showed us that we would have weevils,” says Starnes, who noticed initial weevil damage in 1998 and '99. “Some of them moved from that area to ours in late summer when our irrigated cotton was still blooming. The result was the loss of the top three or four bolls on the plant.”
The two growers immediately began gathering more BWE information. They then worked to educate neighbors and other growers in the region on how BWE was a must.
“We had a lot of information that the program was working elsewhere,” says McFerrin. Their educational efforts worked; the region received a two-thirds vote by growers to initiate the program.
“Before we started the program, you could easily be forced to spray eight, 10 or even 12 or more times to keep weevils under control,” says Starnes. In fact, he notes, weevils knocked out of an infested field would quickly migrate to a treated one.
“But with BWE, two or three sprayings at the right fields at the right times across the region keep the insects under control,” he says. “We're cutting our insecticide costs dramatically (from $50/acre or more for massive control measures) to about $12/acre for the entire season.”
Nationwide, 6.45 million acres, or about 38% of the Cotton Belt, have been declared weevil-free by APHIS. About 9 million acres are under some level of eradication. A few areas in parts of Arkansas and Texas remain outside BWE programs.
Brumley's southeastern eradication foundation includes 3.5 million acres in post eradication in six states and 2.5 million active acres in three states. He says there are still “some occasional outbreaks from ‘hitchhiking’ weevils in post eradication regions.”
Weevils are still migrating from non-eradicated areas to BWE zones, too. But for the most part, we've been able to see the whole gambit, start to finish, on a lot of acres that had weevils and are now weevil-free,” says Brumley.
“Now, growers average 1-1½ applications for the entire crop year for all pests. We are enjoying major cost savings as well as the environmental benefits of BWE. We're seeing considerably fewer pounds of insecticide going on the ground.”
BWE programs have seen great success. Georgia's annual pesticide use dropped by at least 60% after weevils were eliminated. Since North and South Carolina eradicated the boll weevil in 1986, the number of chemicals needed to control all insects has declined by 75%.
Texas BWE officials are still hoping growers will approve eradication programs in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. That's despite fears of a repeat of beet armyworms breakouts caused by boll weevil spraying.
The mid-'90s eradication program killed beneficial insects that normally helped control armyworms — just as conditions were ripe for an armyworm invasion, says Jim Leser. A Texas A&M entomologist, Leser chairs the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation technical advisory committee.
“Program administrators have learned a lot since those early eradication plans,” he says. “BWE programs are now tailored to adjust trap triggers for spraying to limit treated acres when there is an increased risk for armyworm or other secondary pest outbreaks.”
McFerrin says the overall BWE program is popular among most growers who have a “say” in how it operates. “Farmers wanted a program they had input in,” he says. “That's what we have. And it's nice to see the benefits of the programs in higher yields, lowered pesticide costs and better conditions for the environment.”