NEW COTTON INSECTICIDES MAKE FARMING EASIER
AUBURN, Ala. - Only a few years ago, Alabama cotton farmers
were fighting the cruel hand of fate with their backs flat against
Overseas production of cotton had driven down demand, resulting in rock
bottom prices. If that wasn't bad enough, a host of pesticide-resistant
budworms were munching their way through the cotton crop, and growers
were almost powerless to stop it.
Today, things aren't as rosy as cotton growers would like them to be.
But one thing is for sure: pest control isn't nearly the headache it was
a decade ago, and with the release of a whole new family of cotton
insecticides, the job is likely to get even easier.
"We've got the best tools to control cotton insects that we have ever
had in the entire history of synthetic chemicals, which began in the
1940's," says Dr. Ron Smith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System
cotton entomologist who grew up on a North Alabama cotton farm and
witnessed this progression almost from the very beginning.
For now, the problem for many growers is being able to use the tools.
Again, the issue is money. The new chemistry, while effective, costs
a lot and many farmers, because of the depressed cotton market, haven't
had an incentive to use it on a wide scale.
To keep a lid on operating costs, producers in the last few years
have adopted what Smith describes as a "defensive mode," choosing not
to spray in instances where they otherwise would if cotton prices were
However, two big factors - a turnaround in cotton prices and changes
in the new Farm Bill offering incentives to produce higher yields -- will
encourage more farmers to try this new chemistry.
One thing that makes these new products so attractive is their
Generally speaking, the products fall into two broad categories - those
designed to control caterpillars and those targeted to bugs and sucking
pests. Unlike old broad-spectrum products that took out all kinds of
insects besides just the ones specifically targeted, the new products
are designed to attack only one category of pests and, in some cases,
only one specific pest.
Boll weevil eradication and the widespread use of bollworm-resistant
transgenic cotton already have enabled producers to make huge cost
savings - a far cry from only a decade ago, when farmers in north
Alabama typically sprayed six times during the growing season, while
their counterparts in south Alabama sprayed as often as 15 times to
control pests. Most are now down to only a couple of sprayings a season.
Some don't even have to spray at all.
Yet, even with transgenic cotton, there remained the perennial concerns
associated with insect resistance. But the advent of this new chemistry,
Smith believes, has all but resolved this issue.
"In addition to transgenic cotton, these new chemistries provide us
with four additional modes of action, which means that if growers swap
these products around, they can be assured of excellent resistant
Producers also can look forward to the newly released transgenic
product, Bollgard II, the second generation of transgenic cotton that
will provide an extra layer of insurance against insect resistance.
"We always feared we would encounter resistance with the first
generation of Bollgard before we got to the second stage of the
technology," Smith says, pointing out that the release of this new
product should delay this problem indefinitely.
Still, while these new technologies have brought once unimaginable
advantages, they, like every technological breakthrough, bring their
own set of challenges. While many of the insects once considered the
800-pound gorillas of cotton pest control are now a distant memory,
growers still must occasionally contend with several pint-sized predators
that have filled some of the void left behind by the major predators.
That is why, for most producers, cotton scouting is more crucial than ever.
"It's a lot harder training a scout to look for 15 potential pests than
it was focusing only on one or two, like bollworms or weevils," Smith
says. "Where you once saw a college student who was doing it part-time, you
now see highly trained consultants."
Still, Smith says, the fact remains that insects now comprise only a
minor factor in cotton production. Now, when growers get together for a
cotton meeting, they're more likely to be concerned with other factors, such
as weeds and nematodes, a soil-borne pest.
Life also has become a lot easier for Smith and other Extension
professionals who advise growers on cotton-insect control.
"It's eliminated a lot of grower meetings and allowed us to focus more
of our time to looking at new chemistry and see where it best fits in
"Where we once could only look weeks or even days ahead, we're looking