For years Ronnie Hopper counted on some sort of at-planting insecticide application, either on the seed or in the furrow, to keep early-season insects at bay long enough to get cotton off to a good start.

This year, he’ll try another tactic, waiting until the cotton is up, scouting thoroughly and treating as needed. “In years past, I used Temik as a matter of course,” says Hopper, who farms on the Texas High Plains near Petersburg. He switched the last three years to Cruiser, a seed treatment that eliminated some potential for applicator contact.

“But it’s a pretty pricey option,” he says. Hopper understands the risk of waiting until pests reach treatment thresholds. “We know we have to get cotton off to a good start,” he says. “If it starts slow, we know it can catch up but it will never be as good as it could have been.”

He says early season insects may create more problems than many farmers realize. With boll weevil eradication and more widespread use of Bt cotton varieties, spray applications that were once routine have been eliminated. Overall, that’s a good thing, leaving beneficial insects to clean up many pests. But, instead of boll weevils or caterpillars taking center stage, early season pests, such as thrips, may be more important. And farmers may not be as apt to consider how much damage early season pests can cause.

“It seems to be less quantifiable,” Hopper says. “When early-season insects invade, we still have a long time to harvest and we just assume that we can catch up. “When we see bolls on the ground with holes in them, we can pick those up, count them and estimate how much we’re being hurt. But when we see a square stung, we just assume that we can make a lot more squares. But we need to save as many of those squares as possible. We have to be early.”

Consequently, timing early insecticides applications with a ground rig will be critical. “We can be effective if we have a ground rig ready and conditions are right to spray the day we detect pests at threshold,” he says. “But we also need to look at options in the spring. We have to consider the economics.”

He says a seed treatment would be easy to justify if he thought he’d need control on every acre of land. “But we don’t believe that will be the case,” he says. “We’ll look at thresholds and treat only fields that need it and when they need it.”

If he decides to go back to an at-planting application, he says a liquid in-furrow application would be his first choice. “But we are getting more concerned about applicator handling and safety.”

He expects about 30 percent of his acreage will need early insect pest treatment. “We have some good insecticides to use for early-season insect control,” Hopper says, “and we probably will apply them as we put on other materials.”

He says farmers looking to improve efficiency realize they can’t treat every acre the same. “At one time, we would fertilize and control weeds and insects on pivot corners the same way we would the land underneath the pivot,” he says. “We can’t do that any longer.”

He says land that will not make more than a bale-and-half per acre doesn't get the same attention he gives land with 3-bale potential. “We may consider those corners as dryland production and adjust fertility accordingly,” he says. “Or we may plant wheat or go to a summer fallow program. That way, we concentrate our resources on the land under the pivot, where we can make the best yield.”

Times have changed, he says, since farmers started raising cotton on the High Plains after World War II. “Back then, the area had ample native fertility, abundant water and cheap energy. None of those exist any more so we have to find ways to be as efficient as possible. Declining cotton prices also play a role.”

He says record crops, like High Plains farmers made in 2004, have become necessary to make a profit. And technology has allowed them to increase yields over the past few years. Hopper takes advantage of new technology.

“We use Bt varieties on every acre that’s qualified,” he says. “It’s good technology and it will generally make enough more cotton per acre to pay for the extra costs and then some.”

He says variety improvements have made a huge difference in West Texas cotton yields and profitability. “Large crops have saved us,” he says, “and better varieties have played a big part in making better yields.”

Hopper expects more changes in the cotton industry over the next five years. “Competition, low profit margins and a realization that we’re not producing for the domestic market will cause us to change the way we grow cotton,” he says.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com