The hard freeze that extended well into Mexico in early February, along with an aggressive approach by the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Inc., and cotton farmers’ strong commitment to stalk destruction last fall put Texas a big step closer to eliminating the boll weevil as an economic pest across the state.

“Early February was the first time since 1983 that a hard freeze extended 80 miles south of the Rio Grande,” said Larry Smith, program director, Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Inc. “That will help with eradication across Texas.”

Smith, speaking to the annual Blacklands Income Growth Conference recently in Waco, said the program is working and has just a bit further to go before “we work our way out of a job.”

He said few weevils were caught in the Western part of the state last year on more than 5 million acres of cotton. “We’re making great progress. We now have less than 600 employees, down from 2,600 when we first started. And farmers are making good crops.”

He said yields have improved by some 200 pounds per acre since the program started. “Part of that increase is because of boll weevil eradication and part is improved varieties,” he said.

The Blacklands area, including two zones, the Northern and Southern Blacklands have made significant progress in the past few years. “We caught only three weevils in the Northern Blacklands in 2010,” smith said. “We caught 104 in 2009. We caught 8,025 weevils last year in the Southern Blacklands, down from 31,278 in 2009.”

The Upper Coastal Bend Zone caught only one weevil in 2010, down from 47 a year earlier. The Lower Rio Grande Valley remains the hot spot. Catches in the LRGV last year topped 163, 500, up from 41,450 in 2009.

“Weather hurt our efforts last fall,” Smith said. “Hurricanes kept us out of the fields. Also, Mexico halted their program in the summer.”

He said progress in the Blacklands has been significant since 2002. The Northern Blacklands caught 320,667 that year and only three in 2010. The Southern Blacklands caught 81,000 in 2002 and just more than 8,000 last year. “We caught no weevils in the Northern Blacklands Zone after July 31,” he said.

The Brazos Bottom “has been a struggle in the Southern Blacklands. They get more rain. But we have been very aggressive there this year.”

Stalk destruction, a crucial aspect of the program in South Texas where stalks can survive mild winters and allow weevils to over winter and reproduce, building numbers into spring, is paying dividends. “We had excellent response with stalk destruction in the Blacklands this year,” Smith said. “That really helps to lower weevil numbers in both zones.”

Last year, Smith said weevil catches in alternate crops also caused concern. “We were getting a lot of reproduction in corn and other rotation crops and had to spray insecticides in those fields. We caught 30,000 weevils in corn, grain sorghum and other rotation crops in 2009.  In 2010, we caught almost none.”

He said a trap line between Texas and Mexico is “run all the time to monitor boll weevil movements. We also have trap lines for the Lower Rio Grande Valley and other hot areas. The battle continues. The freeze will help tremendously.”

He also encouraged farmers to report new cotton acreage. “We have new growers in the Blacklands, and we need to know about those fields,” he said.

He cautioned farmers to watch for equipment movement out of quarantined zones. “That can be trouble if gins are bringing in modules and other equipment from hot zones. Make certain machinery is cleaned thoroughly. Also, check with gin managers about custom harvesters coming into your area.”

The situation in Mexico should be better in 2011. “Mexico is very concerned about Boll Weevil Eradication. They had some issues following the hurricanes and the program fell apart. But the Mexican government has said it will put money into the program so farmers can treat boll weevils this year. They want the program to succeed as much as we do. It’s more difficult in a tropical environment and with frequent hurricanes.”

Responding to an audience question about a timeline for the Northern Blacklands Zone to achieve functionally eradicated status, Smith said he “hopes to see tremendous progress this year to reach that stage. We are getting close.”