LUBBOCK–Unless each farmer protects his fields, boll weevils may take a big bite out of yields and profits in “the world’s biggest cotton patch,” the more than 3 million acres around Lubbock which is annually planted to the crop, warn entomologists with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
“We’re looking at a $100-million to $200-million cost across the (20-county) area for individual farmers to battle the increased weevil problem this year,” said Dr. James Leser, Extension Service cotton entomologist.
Farmers with weevil problems will have to pay from $32 to $60 an acre, depending upon the number of times they have to spray, he projected. “Even with this level of control we will still have yield losses (from the weevil),” he said. “On 75-cent (a pound) cotton, that could average $31 an infested acre.”
Boll weevil traps monitoring the emergence of weevils which overwintered following last year’s crop snared “significantly more weevils in April than ever before,” said Dr. Don Rummel, Experiment Station entomologist who has been tracking and studying the pest here for almost 30 years.
“We’re seeing a more cold-hardy weevil,” Rummel said. “All early indications are that this may be the greatest boll weevil population ever on the High Plains.”
“The only thing that can moderate that,” said Leser, “is a poor growing season for cotton. What’s good for cotton is also good for the weevil.”
He said scientific research and experience show three things: “The boll weevil is definitely overwintering everywhere across the High Plains that we’re trapping; it is continuing to spread across the area, and the infestations are increasing in magnitude.
“This is the first year that many producers who have doubts about the presence of weevils will become believers.”
In 1994 the legislature created the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation with authority to assess growers to pay for the control efforts. Regional programs were established on consent of growers in various production regions. The High Plains eradication effort began in 1995 with an expansion of the Plains Cotton Growers’ 30 year-old diapause weevil control program which had delayed the pest’s advance into the area.
With funding from assessments by the foundation, that expanded program sprayed more than five million acres of cotton at a cost of $12.5 million in 1995. But in 1996 many growers objected to the fees and refused to pay their assessments. Ten filed a lawsuit against the foundation. As a result, only 3 million acres of the 6.5 million needing treatment were sprayed.
Then on April 30, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that while the assessment was legal, the legislature had given the foundation an unconstitutionally broad delegation of authority, ending the statewide effort. On May 2, the Plain Cotton Growers Boll Weevil Steering Committee canceled all plans for its diapause weevil spray program this fall.
“We’re still capable of running a program, but we’ve lost the ability to collect the fees to pay for it,” said Roger Haldenby, who heads the control programs for the growers group. “The weevil is going to make an assessment on High Plains cotton in 1997, no matter what the law says.
“Without an area-wide spray program, cotton farmers are going to need all the information they can get,” Haldenby said. “We will provide all possible information for producers to conduct their own individual control efforts.”
The Agri-Partners program of the Extension Service will continue monitoring traps in 21 counties. The growers group also will run some traplines for the pest. Findings from these traps, along with additional reports from county agents and private crop consultants, will be publicized weekly.
Overwintered weevil trapping is conducted from April through July.
“Over the years we usually see the peak emergence (of overwintering weevils) in late May to mid-June,” Rummel said.
“We’ve only trapped for one month, but in many counties we’ve already caught more weevils than we caught for the entire emergence period of 1995 and 1996,” Leser said. They aren’t emerging early, just in record numbers, he stressed, and have appeared as far north as Randall County, at the upper edge of the producing area.
“North of Lubbock it will be much like what producers south of Lubbock faced last year,” the extension entomologist said.
Rummel said hope that two periods of cold weather last winter had devastated the weevils was false. “We had some very low air temperatures, which we as humans noticed. But what counts for the boll weevil is the temperature down where he is, below the leaf litter and ground trash.” That’s where the researchers measured temperatures, he said.
The cold period in mid-December was accompanied by dry weather and “did us some good,” Rummel acknowledged. But the mid-January cold spell was different, he said.
“During that period we had a snow cover. At our (monitoring) site on the Texas Tech campus, for example, the air temperature was 9 to 10 degrees. But under the snow cover, where we were measuring under the leaf litter (where the weevils were), it was only in the high 20s. That caused very little (weevil) mortality.”