A trap catch study showed a greater than 90 percent reduction of boll weevils in Washington County, Miss., since the program began in that area.

Despite what some consider slow progress in eradicating the boll weevil from Mississippi cotton fields, one entomologist says the program is sound in its design.

“The program will be a success and it will be of great economic benefit to the farmers in Mississippi. It is now, and will continue to pay big profits to cotton producers in Mississippi,” Aubrey Harris told consultants attending the 28th annual conference of the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association, Feb. 5-7, at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

Harris, an entomologist at Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss., and consultant to the Mississippi boll weevil eradication program, says, “Although the levels of reduction of the boll weevil in the Mississippi Hills have been disappointing, there are several reasons that has occurred. Mild winter weather has been a significant problem and has caused boll weevil infestation increases in Mississippi and significant weevil damage to cotton as far north as the Bootheel of Missouri and in previously low-infestation areas of Tennessee.”

However, he says, the most important factor in the slow progress of the state's eradication program has likely been the high proportion of Hill Region cotton acreage planted in transgenic Bt cotton. “The consequence of the Bt cotton is the elimination or great reduction in bollworm and tobacco budworm insecticide applications and consequent loss of coincidental control of boll weevils by these insecticides.”

Although questions have also been raised about what some consider to be a low use rate of 10 ounces of malathion ULV per acre, Harris says, “This rate does not appear to contribute to the slower-than-desired progress in the Mississippi boll weevil eradication program. I continue to be convinced that the insecticide treatments are working and are doing an adequate job of eradicating boll weevils.”

Despite the slow progress, there is good news. A trap catch study by Dick Hardee, an entomologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Stoneville, Miss., showed a greater than 90 percent reduction of boll weevils in Washington County since the eradication program began in that area.

“These reductions are what we would have liked to have observed statewide. However, we are seeing a substantial decline in the number of boll weevils per acre in all of the eradication regions and we are moving towards complete eradication of the boll weevil in Mississippi,” Harris says.

To back-up his belief that cotton producers are reaping “substantial benefits” from the Mississippi boll weevil eradication program, in September 2000 Harris helped initiate an economic analysis of the program. The collaborative study analyzed data from a survey of 14 county agents, combined with average cotton insect controls costs for the region, to determine both the current economic benefits of the program and the future predicted benefits of a maintenance eradication program.

What the economic study found, according to Harris, was a substantial economic benefit to growers participating in the eradication program. The study estimated insect control costs of $95 per acre without the eradication program, which includes a 6.56 percent yield loss on 680 pounds per acre of 55-cent cotton lint.

“The estimated average per acre benefits for regions 3 and 4 in 2000 were $39 and $43, respectively. When the costs are adjusted for a future maintenance program in regions 3 and 4, the projected cost is $44 per acre and projected benefits increase to $51 per acre, assuming a $12-per-acre maintenance fee,” Harris says. “We know this is a narrowly focused study and that costs and returns are variable from year to year and from farm to farm, but we think this study is very informative about the potential benefits of the eradication program.”

He says, “I'm convinced that a maintenance program around $12 will be profitable to growers. I'm also convinced there is a huge profit potential for growers if they continue in this program through its completion.”

The completion Harris refers to may include a 10-year maintenance program for those cotton growers in Mississippi eradication regions 3 and 4, when the five-year eradication program reaches its conclusion at the end of 2001.

Originally, the maintenance program was also scheduled to last five years with an anticipated grower cost of $5 per acre per year. However, officials with the Mississippi boll weevil eradication program have asked state legislators to amend the boll weevil law and allow for a 10-year referendum with an annual maximum fee of $12 per acre.

The increase, according to Jim Bromley with the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Program, is due, at least partly, to the outstanding debt owed to the USDA Farm Service Agency by the Mississippi program. Currently, the Mississippi program is $30 million in debt.

If the program debt is not paid to the government, the FSA could shut the eradication program down and seize any assessments that could legally be collected, including those per-acre fees still owed by growers, Bromley says.

E-mail: doreen_muzzi@intertec.com.