The February 2021 freeze that cost South Texas agriculture more than $380 million in losses provided at least one sliver of a silver lining.
The hard freeze may allow the boll weevil eradication program to overcome some of the setbacks the program experienced when Hurricane Hanna destroyed most of the Lower Rio Grande Valley cotton last July, says Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (the Foundation) President and Chief Executive Officer Lindy Patton.
One of the challenges to eradicating the boll weevil from the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) is having a host-free period, unusual for a subtropical region where a freeze that will kill cotton is rare. Cotton stalk destruction is typically the only method to provide a host free period. “The February 2021 hard freeze swept across the LRGV killed any cotton growing and provided a host-free period,” Patton explains. That’s unusual for the subtropical Lower Rio Grande Valley, the last bastion of boll weevil infestation in the U.S. Cotton Belt.
Trap Counts Lower
“Even though the freeze was hard on farmers, it was a benefit to boll weevil eradication. Now, the TBWEF is doing everything possible to take advantage of benefits of the freeze and complete eradication. We see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Boll weevil numbers are down significantly,” Patton says, but adds that following a prolonged early-season drought, recent rainfall events have stymied trap monitoring a bit.
“Still, the numbers are the best we’ve seen.”
Across the Border
Patton says the Foundation is also working with Mexico to rid the cotton production area just across the border of boll weevils. It’s a multi-agency effort including the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO), USDA, Aphis, and the National Cotton Council. NAPPO is a joint effort of the United States, Canada, and Mexico to work on invasive species, Patton explains.
“We are working closely with folks in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a cotton producing area adjacent to Texas.”
Working with Mexico is something the Foundation has done for years. When eradication of the boll weevil and pink bollworm were taking place in west Texas, the Foundation worked closely with their counterparts in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and succeeded in eradicating both pests.
But border struggles hamper efforts in Tamaulipas. In the past, crossing the border to scout cotton fields and check on progress was much easier when Foundation personnel were working with Chihuahua producers. Today, crossing the border is much more difficult and dangerous.
Technology Aids Efforts
Technology is helping fill the data void. “Current technology allows program personnel to monitor program field operation progress in Tamaulipas from anywhere they have an internet connection. We’ve come a long way from scouting with a Big Chief Tablet and a No. 2 pencil,” Patton says.
He says weevil numbers in Tamaulipas and the LRGV are the lowest seen since the inception of the program.
“However, it is extremely important that Foundation personnel and cotton producers in the LRGV do everything possible to take advantage of where we are in this program. The boll weevil in the LRGV is extremely unforgiving.
“Weather events such as tropical systems like Hurricane Hanna in 2020 can destroy program progress in a very short amount of time.”
Patton says program personnel continue to work closely with growers to keep numbers low. Finding volunteer cotton is a major effort. “It is important for producers to watch for volunteer cotton growing in other crops or anywhere outside of a commercial cotton field.”
He says volunteer cotton emerges in rotation crops and has to be taken out. But it also shows up in areas outside cultivated fields—roadsides, gin yards and residential property. “Foundation personnel are constantly on the lookout for volunteer cotton. Everyone can help in this effort. Cotton growing outside a commercial cotton field is one of the biggest threats to not being able to eradicate the boll weevil from the LRGV.
“Eradication is expensive, and it takes all of us working together to accomplish this daunting task. We still need to stay on top of it and finish the job,” Patton adds. “We still need continued support from our friends in Congress, the legislature, cotton producers and grower organizations in the United States and in Mexico to finish the job.”
The LRGV, with about 180,000 acres of cotton planted this year, lies just south of the East Texas Maintenance Area (ETMA). The southern part of the ETMA is designated “functionally eradicated.” That designation, Patton says, results from a few weevils captured in the Winter Garden area and in an area around Kingsville. “After a two-year period of no weevil captures in the ETMA, migrating weevils from the LRGV or weevils that traveled on equipment reinfested these two areas.
“The southern portion of the ETMA would qualify as eradicated except for small pockets where a few weevils reinfested this area. So far this year, we are in good shape,” he says. “We have not captured any weevils in the ETMA.”
The other portion of the ETMA, which includes the Northern and Southern Blacklands, is designated as eradicated.
Quarantines, limiting movement of equipment from restricted areas remain in effect. Those regulations are spelled out on the TBWEF website (https://www.txbollweevil.org/program.html) and include:
Cotton harvesting equipment and other equipment associated with the production and transport of cotton, as well as gin equipment, may be moved through a restricted area provided the equipment is free of hostable material, seed cotton and boll weevils in any stage of development by one of the following methods:
- a. removal by hand;
- b. high-pressure air cleaning;
- c. high-pressure washing; or
- d. fumigation of regulated articles as prescribed by the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Stalk destruction to remove hostable plants after harvest also remains a crucial part of the eradication effort. Stalk destruction methods vary by zone. Those regulations are available at: https://www.texasagriculture.gov/RegulatoryPrograms/CottonStalkDestruction/CottonStalkDestructionMethods.aspx
Patton says boll weevil trap numbers in the LRGV so far this season are promising but adds that much work remains to be done and everyone will need to work together to achieve eradication in the LRGV and Tamaulipas. “We can’t let our guard down,” he says. “Farmers and the State and Federal Governments have invested too much into the program to slack off now.
“This has been a good program for the cotton industry,” he adds.
“It has also been great for the environment. Farmers don’t have to spray for boll weevils, and they spray a lot less for other pests. Before eradication, they had to spray weevils if they wanted to make a crop and that led to having to spray other pests that now can be controlled with beneficial insects.”
He credits producers for taking ownership of eradication for the program’s success. “Growers made it happen.”
Current LRGV TBWEF numbers for week ending May30:
LRGV planted acres – 181,227
Traps inspected – 23,538
Total weevils captured - 6
Weevils per trap - .00025
YTD number of traps inspected – 686,254
YTD weevils captured - 259
YTD per trap average - .0004
Number of acres treated – 19,116
YTD acres treated – 275,005