T.M. Harper has battled boll weevils since 1949 on the Ellis County, Texas, farm his grandfather bought in 1895.
Thanks to an affirmative vote in a January boll weevil eradication referendum, cotton farmers in Ellis County, along with growers in 33 other Northern Blacklands counties and parts of two more, may not have to wage that weevil war much longer.
And after more than a-half-century matching wits with weevils, Harper considers cotton production without his long-time nemesis. “I won't miss it at all,” he says.
“Folks around here are as happy as can be that the referendum finally passed,” Harper says.
The affirmative vote came on the third try.
“I wish we had passed it the first time around, when we had less weevil pressure,” says Ellis County farmer Steve Patman, who has served on the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Inc., board.
Another Ellis County farmer, Steve Beakley, will represent the newly activated zone on the board.
All three agree that getting rid of the weevil will make cotton production a lot easier.
“Over the last three years, we've averaged about $30 per acre to control boll weevils,” Beakley says. “On top of that, we were still losing from one-fourth to one-third of a bale per acre. In some fields, we lost more than that.”
Beakley says that even fields that never reached a high enough weevil population to justify spraying suffered losses. “At a low weevil population, 7 percent to 8 percent, they just picked at the cotton all year,” he says. “Overall, I think they cost us 10 percent of production most years.”
Patman figures his losses range from $60 to $75 per acre. “That includes control costs and probably at least a 100 pound-per acre yield loss.”
He says controls were not always effective. “We could spray one week and the next week find just as high a percentage of weevils in the field. If neighbors don't spray, too, we get frequent re-infestations. That's why eradication will work.”
Harper says most years he lost the top crop on his cotton to weevils.
“We made the best crop ever last year,” he says. “But we stated over-winter weevil sprays early, about a week before most other growers.”
“In years with adequate moisture, when we can make a top crop, weevils have kept us from making it,” says Glen Moore, a Texas A&M integrated pest management specialist who works out of Waxahachie.
Harper made two over-winter weevil applications last year. “We might should have made one more in 2003,” he says. “We might not have watched quite close enough.”
“T.M. always makes timely applications to protect those top bolls,” Moore says.
Cotton production will change in the next few years as growers turn weevil control over to the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. Actual control begins next fall with diapause sprays. Applications begin when about 50 percent of the cotton reaches cracked boll stage.
Next spring, the Foundation will begin in-season control. Beakley says those weevil sprays likely will help growers with other pests as well. “Those blanket sprays will get some fleahoppers and other pests.”
Moore says reports from the Southern Blacklands Zone support that theory.
“We could see as many as six to eight spray applications in the first growing season,” Beakley says.
After the first year and especially when weevil numbers decline to the point that the Foundation reduces sprays significantly, growers will begin to change the way they look at cotton pest control.
“It will be a learning process,” Beakley says. “I expect the first year after the weevil is gone we'll find more aphids and spider mites.”
Moore says stink bugs also may show up as an increasingly important cotton pest. “We're seeing more and more stink bugs in soybeans,” he says.
“I don't expect to see much change early on except that the Foundation will spray weevils for us,” Patman says. “After that, we'll just have to see what new problems emerge. What we now consider secondary pests will probably become bigger problems.”
Patman says he may plant more cotton because of eradication. ‘I'll be able to grow cotton cheaper and make more of it,” he says.
“I usually make two over-winter weevil sprays. Some fields I don't have to spray again and some I have to spray another eight times. The last few years weevil pressure has been heavy.”
Harper says early-season control will take on increased importance when the weevil no longer takes precedence. “We'll be more concerned with thrips and plant bugs,” he says.
He says weevils have always taken a chunk out of cotton farmers' pocketbooks. He started a flying service in 1949 and spent a lot of his time spraying cotton fields for boll weevils. “I think 1959 and 1971 were the worst weevil years I ever saw,” he says.
In some of the worst cases he sprayed for weevils 14 or 15 times. “Even at that, we often made a good crop.”
He says he's used a planeload of different materials over the years to control boll weevils and still the pest hung on. A concentrated effort that includes blanket insecticide applications on all cotton fields in the zone should put an end to the more than century-long war cotton farmers have waged against boll weevils, Beakley says.
“I think we'll see results almost immediately.”
The effort to activate the zone has been frustrating for some. Harper says a 2003 referendum failed to pass by less than 2 percent.
“Some of the farmers who voted against eradication in the past were some of its biggest supporters this last time,” Patman says.
In the latest vote, 85 percent of legitimate ballots favored the referendum.
“I expected it to pass but I didn't expect it to pass by that much,” Harper says.
Reasons for success this time included the potential difficulty farmers could see in getting custom harvest equipment into the only area in the state not in an active eradication zone, Moore says. Quarantines also could have limited movement of cotton out of the area. And growers could have been hit with stiff fees on cotton moved into other zones.
“Increased pressure from the weevil and the necessity to improve efficiency also played important roles,” Moore says.
Beakley says proponents of the program have been working to get it passed for more than five years. Initial efforts started long before that, dating back to 1995.
He says the current economic outlook for cotton makes eradication even more important. “Unless we get more competitive, we can't continue to grow cotton,” he says. “I hope boll weevil eradication will make us more efficient. We need to keep cotton in our rotation.”
All three farmers say that even with exceptional years the past few years, profit has been difficult because of depressed prices.
“I'd like to know what the next farm bill will be like so I could know what changes I could make,” Harper says. “I'd like to see the loan rate increased by 5 cents a pound. I don't think that will happen.”
Beakley says he could not afford to be more aggressive with boll weevil control. “If we had 80 cent cotton, we might could do more,” he says. “But we've been doing about all we can.”
Moore says the Foundation has a lot of work to do to prepare for the fall diapause program. “They have to hire folks, set up an office and get everything in place,” he says. “Hiring the right people will be a crucial part of the program.”
Beakley says one thing a steering committee must do is to establish a crop destruction rebate “before we get too involved in the program.”
The Northern Blacklands Boll Weevil Eradication Zone includes 34 counties and parts of two more and stretches from the Northeastern corner of the state southward to around Waco. The zone includes about 76,000 acres of cotton, Beakley says.
Growers will pay no more than a $13.25 per acre assessment to support the eradication effort.