If you farm where there is normally intense cotton pressure from bollworms and late-season bugs, then the extra $8/acre for Bollgard II could be well spent. But if one pyrethroid spraying can normally bottle up any bollworm problems you have, you might think about investing that tech fee elsewhere.
The miracles of biotechnology in cotton have turned production around in recent years. Roundup Ready is often a no-brainer because of the benefits it provides. And Monsanto's sister product, Bt cotton, is just as logical a choice in many cases. But there is often the question of whether the Bt benefits are worth those costly tech fees.
“Bollgard II is a good product. And in Mississippi there are definitely some areas where Bollgard II would be beneficial for us,” says Tom Barber, Mississippi State cotton agronomist, referring to areas where growers have fields over a widespread area. “But right now, probably less than 1% use Bollgard II.”
It all depends on a grower's insect pressure, says Scott Stewart, University of Tennessee Extension entomologist. “And even then, if the varieties don't yield well, it may not be worth it.”
Jim Leser, Texas A&M Extension entomologist, says Bollgard II cotton “does an excellent job of controlling insects,” but growers are still more concerned about cotton yield and quality from Bt varieties.
Dimmitt, TX, grower Donny Carpenter has had success with using the Bollgard gene on his southwestern Panhandle farm. “We had very good worm control with a Bollgard II variety in 2004,” he says. “But the variety was a longer maturing line and we need an early maturity cotton because our more northern location can see an early freeze.”
Carpenter rotates cotton with corn because of the good residual organic fertilizer he receives from both crops. His operation is “high-end” irrigation, so he goes all out for the best yield.
Typical cotton insect control begins with an application of Temik at planting to control thrips. If there are bollworm (same as corn earworm) problems in mid or late season, then he applies a pyrethroid.
“We can usually obtain good control with one pyrethroid spraying,” he says. “But if we have a higher bollworm infestation, then more are needed.”
Those pyrethroid applications cost about $13/acre. That compares to $8-10 for the Bollgard tech fee, which in his case only suppresses worms. There is a $16-20 tech fee for Bollgard II. “And we even had to make one pyrethroid application with Bollgard,” he says.
His Bollgard and Bollgard II experiences have involved the Bt gene stacked with Roundup Ready cotton. But with the threat of weed resistance to the glyphosate, Carpenter is also planting some Liberty Link cotton without Bt.
“We are seeing some high quality cotton with some Liberty Link lines, which help increase our loan rate (which is partially based on quality),” he says.
“I'll still try Bollgard II on some Roundup Ready lines because I know it works. But right now, it's not available in an earlier maturing, better yielding variety,” Carpenter adds.
Barber sees more growers using Bollgard II once the gene is bred into high-yielding varieties. “We have seen some yield drag on the Bollgard II varieties thus far,” says Barber. “But when the new Roundup Ready Flex varieties stacked with Bollgard II are available, we expect better-yielding cottons that have the extra insect resistance.”
Roundup Ready Flex varieties provide season-wide over-the-top glyphosate applications, another biotech plus for growers. Barber says growers will likely have access to Bollgard II only if it is stacked with the flex varieties. “We don't expect any single protein Bollgard varieties anymore,” he says.
Barber sees maximum stacked-seed fees in Mississippi at $50-55/acre for cotton stacked with the Bollgard II gene. That sounds expensive, but there could be a strong value of Bollgard II, or the new Wide Strike Bt cotton from Dow AgroSciences, for growers who can't get immediate applications to quick-striking insects.
“We have growers in southern Mississippi who may have several fields that are far apart that need spraying at the same time if there are fall armyworm attacks,” he says. “The longer they wait to spray, the more the damage.
“But with Bollgard II, the cotton should have strong resistance to the armyworms,” Barber says.
Tennessee's Stewart says farmers use Bollgard on a regular basis. “It's widely adapted, with probably 90%-plus usage among growers,” he says. “But I don't see growers rushing to Bollgard II. The yields aren't there yet.”
Stewart points out that with Roundup Ready Flex varieties, more growers will probably look toward Bollgard II. “We'll likely see about a $40/acre maximum fee for Roundup Ready stacked with Bollgard II, or about $8 more than with Bollgard,” he says.
“You can't be whimsical in insect control. You have to be on top of things. I don't see many going back to non-Bt just because of the pricing structure. Bollgard and Bollgard II provide bulletproof control of tobacco budworms and fairly good control of bollworms,” Stewart says. “Growers have gotten bigger and a little spoiled. They aren't used to management in a bad budworm or bollworm year.”
In West Texas, Leser says there is a move to have Monsanto set a lower price structure for dryland production as opposed to irrigated. Right now it's about the same price, a tech fee of about $20/acre for both, even though irrigated yields easily double or triple those for dryland.
“In many years the Bollgard tech fee is about $8/acre above the Roundup Ready tech fee, which is about $20 above conventional seed costs,” says Leser. “Fortunately, West Texas growers don't pay extra for Bollgard II technology over the Bollgard tech fee, unlike producers to the east of Interstate 35.
“There is nothing black and white on whether it (Bollgard II) fits,” adds Leser, noting that West Texas research shows strong bollworm control from Bollgard II and Wide Strike. However, some areas see growers receive good bollworm control from one pyrethroid application, which costs about $2 for the chemical and $4 for aerial application.
“But if you want to ease the operation, then Bt technology is great,” he says, agreeing with Stewart that lost time is critical in worm control.
Also, with pyrethroid applications there is loss of beneficial insects for at least two weeks, says Leser.
Bt cottons will continue to provide new tools to make insect control more efficient for growers in virtually every part of the Cotton Belt. But using those tools will be a decision growers must make individually.
Growers are encouraged to contact their Extension cotton specialists or private consultants to determine the best system for their operations. Early year cotton informational meetings should also help growers understand the benefits vs. costs involved with the newest Bt technology.