Despite setbacks from Tropical Storm Erin in 2007 and Hurricanes Dolly and Ike in 2008, the costly and destructive boll weevil has been effectively eliminated from over 80 percent of Texas’ cotton and the benefits continue to accrue.
In 2008, the statewide program covered more than 5.5 million cotton acres in 16 Texas and four New Mexico zones. Of those 5.5 million acres, 4.8 million are found in West Texas and New Mexico. In this area, the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (TBWEF) caught a total of 883 weevils last year, down from 6,354 the year before. Of the 11 zones in that region, five had no weevil catches in 2008. Only one field in West Texas had reproducing weevil populations, and that field was not reported to the Foundation until late in the season when weevils had already taken hold. Treated acres also declined from nearly 450,000 in 2007 to just over 147,000 in 2008.
In East and South Texas the Foundation mapped a little over 700,000 acres in 2008 and caught nearly 2 million boll weevils, 23 percent fewer than in 2007. The 3.9 million acres treated in 2008 was also reduced by 18 percent from the 4.7 million treated in 2007.
With success, comes downsizing, says Lindy Patton, TBWEF president and CEO. Statewide, the number of boll weevil offices has declined from 72 to 54 and employee numbers have decreased 24 percent, from 965 to 731, in just one year.
Although 11 of the 16 Texas zones have already been declared either suppressed or functionally eradicated, much remains to be done, Patton says. And hurricanes and tropical storms have made the job more difficult. Storms may have set back progress by at least one year and have added significant expense to the effort.
“We’ve seen it several times,” Patton says. “A storm blows through and scatters weevils all over, even in areas where we had them pretty well cleaned up.”
He says Tropical Storm Erin in 2007 demonstrated that the program will not be completed anywhere until every area across the state is weevil free. Winds from the storm that came ashore in south Texas tracked northward into central and west Texas before they weakened. Boll weevils traveled with the storm and traps recorded catches where none had been found all season. A week after the storm hit, the winds continued, following the same path bringing even more weevils.
“We had weevils the rest of the season,” Patton says.
That year, he says the Foundation had to treat acreage in the San Angelo area that had not been treated all year. “In the Southern Rolling Plains (SRP), the first zone to be declared functionally eradicated, the storm brought in more than 5,000 weevils. We had to deal with them again in 2008 because some of those survived the winter.”
Patton says program personnel dealt with the problem, and weevil captures were brought below 900 in 2008. “But, it cost money. They (SRP growers) had to increase their assessment to pay for it.” He says the main concern in those areas where storms brought in weevils is to “get back on track.”
The Lower Rio Grande Valley faces new challenges in 2009. “We were making good progress in the Valley,” Patton says. “Populations were way down — 1.4 million weevils in 2007 and only 208,000 in 2008. We were seeing weevils only in hot spots and had areas in the zone with no weevils at all.
“Then Dolly hit. Weevils spread all over the Valley and more acres had to be treated. We lost a year of progress and have another year of cost just to get back to where we were (before the hurricane).”
Patton says the storm also scattered cottonseed across the Valley. “We had volunteer cotton all over the place.” Program personnel found random stalks of cotton along highways, near residential areas, pastureland and anywhere the storm might have washed seed. Every stalk had to be cleared to eliminate host able plants.”
Dolly blew weevils into the western edge of the Coastal Bend area as well, says Patton. However, “from Corpus Christi east, fields were pretty clean — until Ike. Ike did not result in as big a blow up in numbers, but it scattered weevils up into the Southern Blacklands Zone.”
Patton thinks Uvalde also faces challenges this year. “We’ve had migration from the Valley. We had it nearly cleaned up and then weevils re-established themselves.”
He says rotation of cotton with grains also adds to the problem. Almost all cotton grown in South Texas is Roundup Ready, so volunteer cotton coming up in corn or other rotation crops poses control problems. “Volunteer cotton is everywhere — in corn, grain sorghum and any other crop out there. And everywhere there is cotton, there is a potential for boll weevil infestations.”
In 2009, as in previous years, the Foundation will trap every field in Texas planted to cotton. In areas with heavy boll weevil infestations in south and east Texas, they also intend to trap fields that were in cotton in 2008. “If a farmer had cotton in 2008, he’ll more than likely have volunteer cotton in 2009.”
Patton says eradication success has, in some ways, created more work for the program. “Success changed the way cotton farmers manage their crop,” he says. “Before the eradication program farmers would terminate their crop earlier because of boll weevils. Now, without weevils, the growing season is extended because they can make a top crop. That means the program has to treat longer.”
As the Foundation gears up for 2009, they are making program adjustments to address the challenges faced in the prior year. Planting decisions for 2009 remain in question as farmers look at other crops, prices and input costs. “We’ve spoken with growers across the state and planting predictions are varied. Many are still on the bubble,” Patton says. Rainfall could also be a determining factor in an area that’s in the midst of a prolonged drought.
Patton says one encouraging factor in the program is the result of the recent continuation referendum held in the Northern Blacklands Zone. In that referendum, held last month, 98 percent of voters elected to continue boll weevil eradication. Two other zones, the Southern Blacklands and the El Paso/Trans Pecos, have program continuation referendum votes scheduled in March and May.