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March 04, 2003   Email to Friend 

Debra Davis
(334) 613-4686
March 04, 2003

AUBURN, Ala. - Only a few years ago, Alabama cotton farmers were fighting the cruel hand of fate with their backs flat against the wall.

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 higher.

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 versatility.

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 management."

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 Alabama."

"Where we once could only look weeks or even days ahead, we're looking years ahead."

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