Gaming technology has expanded beyond the entertainment realm into U.S. production agriculture to provide cotton growers with a new tool in the war against the lygus insect.

A just completed multi-user, computer-based gaming simulation will help cotton growers more effectively manage lygus in cotton and other crops.

The software was conceived and commissioned by the University of Arizona (UA) and built by Red Hill Studios.

The gaming simulation is one outcome of a five-year project involving cotton scientists, growers, and industry leaders through a $2.5 million grant from the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service’s Risk Avoidance and Mitigation Program (RAMP).

The RAMP study examined lygus populations in upland and Pima cotton, romaine lettuce, dry beans, chile, cauliflower and broccoli grown for seed, alfalfa seed, safflower, tomatoes, onions, garlic, alfalfa hay, guayule, and lesquerella.

The gaming simulation was developed for three cotton-growing regions including California’s San Joaquin Valley, Arizona and West Texas. The concept could be eventually deployed throughout the Cotton Belt.

The simulation will be rolled out first in Arizona late this summer or early fall at training workshops. A California rollout is expected this fall or winter.

Targeted pest species include Lygus hesperus found from California to Texas and Lygus lineolaris found east of Texas.

“We need to better understand lygus movement so cotton growers can more strategically arrange their landscape in an overall farming community to minimize pest damage,” said Peter Ellsworth, the project leader.

Ellsworth is a UA Integrated Pest Management (IPM) specialist. Ellsworth and team leaders from California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have worked to reduce the risks of lygus infestations in cotton at three levels: the individual field, local landscape and the wider ecosystem.

Community involvement vital

A critical component of the project and the crux of the lygus gaming simulation is community involvement. An individual grower’s crop decisions and those of neighbors across a local farming community impact lygus numbers and potential crop loss risks.

In mid-May, cotton farmers in Marana, Ariz., (Pima County) and UA Extension staff tested an advanced copy of the lygus gaming simulation under Ellsworth’s direction. On a laptop, each 'farmer' was given a 640-acre land section to strategically plant crops with the overall goal of reducing lygus numbers and damage in cotton.

Crop choices included cotton and wheat — commonly grown in Marana — plus seed alfalfa, grain sorghum, melons, alfalfa for hay, guayule, plus a fallowed ground option.

The farmers selected crops they believed would least harbor lygus. The choices were tabulated into cotton statistics categories based on: the actual percent of lygus infestation; the yield loss to lygus per acre; the percent yield loss to lygus; and the profit-loss per acre.

The farmers were surprised by the impact their crop choices had on lygus damage in cotton across the community. Based on the lessons learned, the simulation then allowed the farmers to start over and replant. Lygus numbers and financial losses fell.

The simulation exercise underscored the importance of farmers knowing about these relationships and talking with each other when planning crop placement to lower the risks.

“The simulation was very informative,” said Tommy Glover, Jr., Marana cotton grower. “I didn’t realize the different interactions between crops could so significantly impact lygus movement.”

In the future, Glover plans to talk with his neighbor to better strategize crop placement to reduce lygus issues.

Marana cotton grower Pat Pacheco said crop placement can strategically reduce insect damage and increase grower productivity.

The UA is the lead institution on the overall RAMP project. Collaborating institutions include USDA, University of California, Texas A&M University, New Mexico State University, and McGill University.

Lygus No. 1 cotton pest

Lygus is the No. 1 pest across the Cotton Belt. The insect’s piercing and sucking mouthparts feed on developing cotton squares. Feeding on floral parts results in deformed blooms or missing anthers. The square usually aborts and falls to the ground. The end result is lost cotton yield and income.

Lygus ranks first in needed application sprays and control costs in cotton per acre. Beltwide, lygus costs about 30 percent of a grower’s investment in foliar control of all insect pests.

Almost 200,000 bales of lint — 92 million pounds — were lost to lygus in 2010. Yield loss and control costs have reduced grower income by about $150 million.

Crops including guayule, a new crop grown in Arizona for latex and rubber, can act as sinks and draw lygus out of cotton. Some crops can serve as sources and sinks according to how they are managed with insecticides or through managed cutting, including safflower or alfalfa hay.

The Arizona regional lygus ecology trials were conducted over three years in commercial cotton fields in Pinal County, the state’s top upland cotton-producing county.

“We identified guayule as a sink during the cotton fruiting period,” Ellsworth said. “Guayule attracts lygus away from cotton and serves as a sponge soaking up lygus from the surrounding landscape at a relatively short distance. Until this project we had only limited pest data on this crop and its relationship with lygus and cotton.”

In California, Pete Goodell, University of California statewide IPM program advisor, studied lygus in about 50 160-acre commercial Pima and (upland) acala cotton fields mostly in western Fresno County for three years. Goodell and his crew sampled cotton fields weekly through the various stages of lygus development, and mapped other crops located within 2 miles of cotton.

Goodell’s eagle eye followed lygus movement in safflower planted near cotton. Safflower can be a major source of lygus. Safflower acreage in California exploded in 2007 and 2008 due to a sharp increased demand for the oil crop.

“It was a mess,” Goodell said. “The area was hit hard by lygus for a six-week period. The safflower was supplying an almost endless supply of lygus into cotton. In 2009, the same acreage amount was planted but carefully situated to minimize the contact with cotton and managed to mitigate lygus movement into cotton.”

cblake@farmpress.com