U.S. cotton production losses to nematodes have climbed from 1 to about 5 percent since 1988, with the reniform nematode increasing in severity during that time, says Bill Gazaway, Auburn University Extension plant pathologist/nematologist and emeritus professor.

“Part of this increase is due to more awareness by our scientists. But most of these losses are due to the reniform nematode,” said Gazaway at the recent Beltwide Cotton Production Conferences.

The U.S. cotton industry lost an estimated $402 million to nematodes in 2004. About $214 million or 548,000 bales were lost to the root-knot nematode, $166 million or 425,000 bales to the reniform nematode, and $22 million or 57,000 bales to the lance and other nematode species.

“This is a significant increase, and it's one we need to be concerned about,” says Gazaway. “The root-knot is responsible for 53 percent of our total nematode losses while the reniform is responsible for another 41 percent. The remaining 6 percent is due to lance and other nematode species.”

The root-knot nematode, he says, has been around since cotton has been grown. “This nematode appears throughout the Cotton Belt, from California into Virginia and North Carolina. This is the most commonly known nematode. However, it is pretty much static. It's not spreading, and its damage generally is restricted to sandier soils. It causes damage to localized areas of a field and doesn't necessarily cause damage throughout the field,” he says.

The lance nematode is mostly restricted to the Southeast, notes Gazaway, with the majority of the damage being found in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Prior to the 1980s, the reniform nematode was considered a minor pest, he says. “Since then, it has spread at an alarming rate to all areas throughout the Southeast. In fact, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Arkansas sustain about 80 percent of the damage from reniform nematodes.”

What's more alarming, he adds, is that the reniform nematode continues spreading to other states. “Unlike the root-knot, the reniform can damage an entire field. We've documented losses in fields up to 75 percent under stress conditions.”

Nematicides

The National Cotton Council's Nematode Research and Education Committee, supported by various industries, has been responsible for the majority of the nematode research and education efforts of the past 15 to 16 years, says Gazaway.

“Looking at our current recommendations, the first line of defense is nematicides — Telone II and Temik 15G. They have done a tremendous job for us. Often, we've relied too heavily on these materials. They're very effective provided they are used in conditions which are favorable for their activation. The problem is that they're not always effective when they're used in less than favorable conditions, or when nematode populations have reached the point to where they can't be controlled.”

Crop rotation also has proven effective in controlling nematodes, especially the reniform species, says Gazaway. “We've found that crop rotation is greatly effective in reducing reniform populations. In Alabama, we've been able to do one year out of cotton in a non-host crop such as corn or peanuts, and we've found that to be just as effective as a nematicide.”

However, there are disadvantages to rotation, he says. One is the lack of a suitable, economical, non-host crop.

“In our part of the country, we have corn and peanuts. In other parts of the country, most growers have only corn or grain sorghum. Another problem with rotation, of course, is that it isn't always economical in most situations because many producers rest their land. They don't have an agreement with their landlord to give them a break on their rent if they grow a non-host crop.”

As for resistance or tolerance, Gazaway says there is some tolerance to the root-knot nematode. “We've had a breeding program for years with the fusarium wilt/root-knot complex, and thanks to that, we've had pretty good varieties to resist that complex. We have no state-controlled screening programs for the root-knot.”

There is no resistance in commercial varieties to the reniform nematode, he says.

Exclusion is another means of controlling nematodes, says Gazaway. “Simply keeping them out of your fields is very effective. The reniform nematode is extremely proficient in being spread by dirt particles and dirt clods on old, used equipment. We've made an effort to tell growers and other people who buy used equipment to at least knock off the dirt clods when going from an infested to a non-infested field. But we haven't had a lot of success with that.”

There are challenges for the future in improving nematode management systems, he says. “First, we need a quick way of identifying and finding out the location of the culprits. Research is being conducted with remote sensing and infrared remote control technology. In identifying the nematode itself, we're looking at methods that use carrier fungi and viruses. We're also looking at DNA analyses.”

There also needs to be an improvement in soil sampling technologies, says Gazaway. “We're sampling in 6-inch zones. But we've seen evidence that these nematodes often are far below that level. Research in Texas has shown that most of the nematode populations are not in that 6 to 8-inch zone but closer to a foot or a foot and a half down. We're obviously missing some of these populations whenever we take samples.”

Researchers also are looking at more efficient means of applying existing nematicides, he says. “We're looking at precision application at variable rates. We're also looking at applying according to soil type or nematode population. We already can do spot applications, and this is especially helpful for root-knot nematodes, which occur in spots in a field. Growers can save a lot of money by concentrating only on affected areas.”

Fumigants study

Another research priority, he says, is looking at nematicides — especially fumigants — in relation to no-till or minimum tillage systems.

“We also need to look at the biology of the reniform nematode. We know something about it, but there still are areas that we don't completely understand. We have indications that population differences and ability to reproduce varies from region to region and from state to state.

“In addition, we need to know more about the reniform nematode host ranges, particularly for an effective rotation program.”

Researchers also need to understand the role of the environment on the reniform nematode, says Gazaway. More rotation studies also are needed, he adds.

“We need more rotation studies over a wider area. This is due to the fact that we suspect we're dealing with different populations of reniform in different growing conditions and in various regions. We also need more economical rotation crops. In addition, we need more information on the role of weeds in controlling nematodes.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com