Anyone looking for a silver lining in that dark cloud that covered 2011 Southwest cotton production might focus on the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication efforts. The historic drought that prevented much of last year’s planted acreage from producing any cotton meant the pests had little to sustain themselves in areas where weevil populations still exist.

“We have a lot fewer boll weevils now than when we started last year,” says Larry Smith, program director, Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (TBWEF). “It was very dry in 2011,” Smith said during the cotton session of the 50th annual Blackland Income Growth Conference (B.I.G.) held recently in Waco.

Smith says Texas, particularly South Texas, is the weevil’s last bastion in the decades-long battle to eliminate the pest as an economic threat to U.S. cotton production. Virtually all of the Cotton Belt, except for zones in Central and South Texas, are considered eradicated.

“As a whole, Texas looks very good,” Smith says. “But the Rio Grande Valley still has a lot of weevils.”

Last year began as a huge challenge for TBWEF with nearly 8 million acres planted. Much of that acreage never emerged, however, as drought conditions prevented germination. The Texas program includes 16 eradication zones plus four more the program monitors in New Mexico. “We’re actually monitoring more acreage in new Mexico than just those four zones,” Smith says.

He says two eradication zones in the Texas Blacklands — the Northern Blacklands and the Southern Blacklands zones — have made tremendous progress toward eliminating boll weevils. The program recorded no weevils trapped in the Northern zone this year. And only 28 weevils were caught in the Southern zone.

Weevil numbers in the Rio Grande Valley increased last year from 163,000 in 2010 to more than 209,000 in 2011. “But we trapped a lot more acres last year,” Smith says. Actual weevil numbers per trap declined in 2011. He says some fields in the Valley had weevil populations exceeding 5,000. Other fields had none.

Program changes for NBL

The zero-catch total for the Northern Blacklands will result in changes in program activity, Smith says. “We’re going to stay out of your way more this year,” he says. “We will set traps every half-mile and will check traps every other week instead of every week.”

He says success in both of the Blacklands zones and the South Texas Winter Garden zone may allow those areas to be removed from strict quarantine status and into suppression. “That will make moving equipment easier,” he says.

He says numbers in the Blackland zones illustrates how effective the program has been over the past few years. In 2009, the program trapped more than 30,000 weevils. That number was down to 28 last year. In 2009, weevils per trap averaged 14.8. Now, the average is .00026 weevils per trap.

One factor in reducing numbers so quickly in the Southern Blacklands has been reducing weevil populations in alternate crops, such as corn. Smith says in 2009 traps indicated more than 27,000 weevils caught in alternate crops. That number was zero last year, after the program started trapping in those alternate crops.

He says treatment last year in the Southern Blacklands “was pretty aggressive for 28 weevils caught.” No treatments were necessary in the Northern Blacklands.

The South Texas Winter Garden zone also has come a long way, Smith says. In 2010, trap catches in the zone were as high as 2,790. By 2011 the “numbers were greatly reduced.”

He says several new growers have begun planting cotton in the South Texas Winter Garden zone and that poses some program challenges. “Some new cotton farmers are not familiar with the Boll Weevil Eradication Program,” he says. “We need to find all the cotton fields in an area. Missing one field that has a weevil population can set back the program. We want growers who are planting for the first time to get in touch with someone so we know where the fields are.”

He says concerns as cotton producers prepare for 2012 include continuation of La Nina. “It’s still dry in West Texas,” he says. In fact, a drought monitor map he displayed showed that statewide conditions as of Jan. 1, 2012, were significantly worse than the same time last year.

He says farmers should be alert that alternate crops can harbor weevils. “Also, watch for volunteer cotton in turnrows and other areas. Volunteer cotton may re-introduce weevils to an area. We don’t want to get an area eradicated and then bring in more weevils.”

Beware re-introduction

West Texas has eliminated boll weevils. “The only way to get them back is to bring them in.”

Transporting baled cotton or gin trash from one area to another could do just that, he says. He cites one case in which someone moved gin trash from the Rio Grande Valley into the High Plains for livestock feed. “That’s actually illegal without a permit from the Texas Department of Agriculture,” he says. Penalties could be forthcoming.

“Be careful,” he cautions. “Go through the proper channels and make certain bales or gin trash come from weevil-free areas.”

Moving custom harvest equipment from one area to another also is reason for concern. “The Foundation will assume the role of inspecting equipment,” Smith says. “(Folks moving equipment) can get a permit through us or TDA.”

He says Mexico remains a serious challenge to eliminating the boll weevil from the Rio Grande Valley. Several cartels across the border prevent the kind of cooperation necessary to run a boll weevil eradication program. He says officials cannot even get into some areas because of violence.

“We have a lot of problems with Mexican eradication efforts,” he says. “But we’ve formed an international group with scientists from both sides of the river.”

Smith says the Foundation will continue to run trap lines all across the state to monitor weevils, even after all zones are deemed eradicated.