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Long-time entomologist makes predictions about cotton insect control

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Long-time Auburn University Extension entomologist makes predictions about the future of cotton insect control.

For a person to be a visionary – to be able to predict future events and trends – he or she must first be a student of history, or perhaps even someone who has lived through and helped to shape events of the past and the present.

The latter can be said of Ron Smith, long-time Auburn University Extension entomologist. Ron and others like him are invaluable sources of information, walking encyclopedias (or should I say walking Googles?) of agricultural knowledge.

So when someone like Smith starts making forecasts about the future, you can be sure it’s more than mere speculation – it’s something for which you prepare, because you know it’s coming.

In a presentation he’s making this winter entitled, “Hurdles of the Past and Challenges in the Future of Cotton Insect Management and Control,” Smith speaks first-hand of the past 30 years of cotton insect control, the “worst of times and the best of times,” as he puts it. He also calls it the most exciting and revolutionary period in cotton insect control history, and he’s had a front-row seat to the entire spectacle.

The worst times, as he explains it, were from 1987 to 1995, with uncontrollable beet armyworm outbreaks and the development of pyrethroid resistance to the tobacco budworm. The best of time was made possible by the eradication of the boll weevil and the introduction of genetically altered cotton varieties.

And then, there was the “best of the best,” of times, which he says were experienced by many growers in 2011 and 2012, with two of the highest-yielding years in history, the best market prices in Smith’s storied career, and the lowest insect losses in history. Both Alabama and the U.S. Cotton Belt as a whole reported total losses to insects in 2011 as 2 to 3 percent, the lowest ever recorded.

So with this as a backdrop, Smith looks ahead and discusses the four insect pests he believes will be major players in cotton insect management for the next five to 10 years. They include stink bugs, early season thrips, spider mites and whiteflies – both the banded wing and silverleaf species.

While he predicts that stink bugs will remain the No. 1 most economically damaging insect on cotton in the Southeast, he says the potential damage from this pest can vary greatly from year to year, as most experienced producers have witnessed. The most likely influencers of stink bugs appear to be both winter temperatures and spring/summer drought and high temperatures.

Second on Smith’s list are thrips, a pest that can be impacted by numerous factors, including weather, planting date, tillage system, plant vigor, the length of the growing season, and the use of foliar sprays as a supplement to seed/in-furrow treatments at planting.

Coming in at third on the list of pests to watch are spider mites. From about 1970 to the mid-2000s mites were a minor problem in cotton, says Smith, but for most of the last decade, mites have returned as an economic pest, even to now to being an early season seedling cotton event.

At No. 4 are the banded wing and silverleaf species of whiteflies. The incidence of silverleaf whiteflies is increasing and spreading, says Smith, with infestations originally being reported in the Tifton, Ga., and Mobile, Ala., areas.

There will always be sporadic or occasional pests, he says, but most can be controlled effectively if discovered in time.

“I do not see a time in the future where an experienced professional person will not be needed to monitor and advise growers in insect management. Stink bugs, and the other three pests discussed, would dictate the need for field monitoring in the future just as the boll weevil did from about 1908 up to 1994 when they were eradicated, and, the tobacco budworm did from about 1960 to 1996 when Bt cotton was introduced.”

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