The Southwest cotton industry is inching closer to eliminating its two most feared enemies — boll weevils and pink bollworms. Years of efforts are paying off and growers and the folks at the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.

“Boll weevil numbers are down in all our Texas zones and we have not caught any weevils in the New Mexico zones we run. As a matter of fact, no weevils have been caught in any of the New Mexico zones,” said Charles Allen, TBWEF program director. The foundation covers 16 Texas and four New Mexico zones and 6.9 million mapped cotton acres.

“Our West Texas zones are closing in on the goal of complete eradication of the boll weevil with no weevils caught for the year in four zones with total acreage of 1,291,326 acres. Only 956 weevils have been caught year-to-date in all of West Texas on 5,640,354 mapped acres this year.”

In East Texas and South Texas, boll weevil populations have been reduced dramatically, but many weevils remain in some spots. Allen reported good progress this year in the northern Blacklands zone, the South Texas/Winter Garden zone and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In the southern Blacklands zone and the Upper Coastal Bend, progress was slower, primarily because of trapping difficulties brought about by rainfall, irrigation and other factors, plus insecticide wash off at critical times.

While the foundation had opponents in its early days, those folks aren't nearly as vocal now because eradication efforts are working, said Edward Herrera, who manages the foundation's West Texas/Trans Pecos Zone 12. Boll weevils have been declared ‘suppressed’ here. The pinkie fight is going well.

This the only Texas zone where eradication efforts place weevils and pinkies in a single crosshair. Pinkies thrive in the zone's dry, warm desert climate. Also, West Texas is the only location in the state where pima cotton is grown. Pima is the bollworm's favorite meal with upland second on the menu.

Zone 12 includes 14 counties, including El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Presidio, Reeves, Loving, Winkler, Ward, Crane, Pecos, Brewster, Terrell and Val Verde. The zone's 20 foundation employees plan eradication efforts on 42,000 acres including 1,200 cotton fields. Twenty-five acres is the average field size. Zone 12 may be the largest zone geographically in Texas yet has the fewest cotton acres.

Pink bollworm eradication efforts began with two years of trapping to determine population levels, Allen said. In 2001, population suppression activities began and pinkie damage virtually disappeared after the first year. Mating disruption (aerially applied fiber and hand applied, long duration rope), Bt cotton, and limited insecticides were used from 2001 through 2003.

“With these control technologies, we added limited sterile pink bollworm moth releases in 2004. In 2005 and 2006, we have reduced our dependence on mating disruption and growers have planted more non-Bt (mostly pima) cotton acres,” Allen said. “During these years we have had the full support of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service with season-long sterile moth releases on every cotton acre from before pinhead square into October. This program has virtually eliminated the pink bollworm, which five years ago was the most serious cotton pest in the region.”

Grown at the USDA's sterile moth lab in Phoenix, Ariz., six metal magazines containing two million sterile pinkies are flown daily on commercial aircraft to El Paso, except for when the cargo is occasionally held for a later flight due to more pressing cargo like a casket.

The magazines are delivered to a tiny airport in the just as tiny town of Fabens, Texas, where they are loaded on a plane piloted by Benny Barton of T and T Aviation. With a global positioning satellite system aboard, he releases the moths according to comprehensive electronic data. Barton knows the exact coordinates for sterile release including the expected width of each pass.

“In West Texas, we've seen a 98 percent reduction in pinkies since we started the eradication program. In South Central New Mexico, we've had less than 10 native catches all season,” said Herrera. He called eradication efforts helpful to producers and environmentally friendly. “It's a win-win situation.”

Cotton grower Craige Miller of Miller Brothers Farms in Fort Hancock, Texas, is an avid supporter of the pinkie eradication efforts. “The eradication program has improved our bottom line by 15 percent,” said the third-generation cotton farmer. “The problem with pinkies is you don't know you have a problem until it's too late. We were paying $20 to $50 per acre trying to control the pinkies before the eradication program started. Now we're paying $20 per acre for eradication through the foundation. Every little bit helps.”

In past years, Miller thought he had the pinkie under control until harvest when he found half of the plant's top was gone. He said the lower part of the plant pays the bills. The top part is the profit.

TBWEF is a non-profit, grower-initiated and funded organization overseen by the Texas Department of Agriculture.