A Beautifully Orchestrated Hand-Off
⋅ BY BRENDA CAROL ⋅
Circa late 1980s — “The Boll Weevil Eradication Program was one of the most significant developments in cotton production over the past 50 years. It was terribly unpopular at first, but I don’t know what our industry would look like today if we hadn’t buckled down and endured that temporary pain.” — Ron Smith, PhD, professor emeritus, Extension entomologist, Auburn University
Circa mid 1990s — “I would say watching the transitions in products and the ability of an insect to adapt to whatever is thrown at it has been one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of my career. Don’t ever think you’ve won the battle. It’s just a matter of time.” — Gus Lorenz, PhD, Extension entomologist, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture
Drs. Gus Lorenz and Ron Smith are technically retired from university Extension now. However, it’s impossible to roll through a four-way stop on a country road in Arkansas or Alabama and not see the footprints in the mud, dirt and the ongoing legacy of their careers.
Lorenz retired in December 2021, while Smith “officially” retired in 2003, but has stayed on with Auburn University in supportive positions.
Both are highly territorial — at least when it comes to something like football. However, bring up a boll weevil, budworm, plant bug or any other type of cotton invader and you’ve got a united front.
“I would say across the entire Cotton Belt, as entomologists, we work very closely together,” Smith said. “We’re like the ‘band of brothers’ when it comes to fighting issues that we face every single season. And it’s constantly evolving, so that collaboration from one state to another or even areas within a state are extremely important.”
The collaboration also extends across generations of perspective and the symbolic handing over of the sweep net to a younger set of equally enthusiastic entomologists.
Smith has collaborated closely with Dr. Scott Graham, assistant professor and Extension specialist, entomology and plant pathology, Auburn University, who now fills (or said he tries to fill) Smith’s shoes.
For Lorenz, it’s Dr. Ben Thrash, assistant professor and Extension entomologist, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, who’s taken over his spot.
Pest Management Milestones
The collaboration among Smith, Lorenz and their successors is evident when both retired entomologists talk about the most challenging pest issues they have faced over their careers.
As with any lessons learned, it begins with unforgettable pests and events that tested and molded two distinguished careers.
The three that top the list are boll weevil eradication, the advent of pyrethroid chemistry and the incorporation of GMO traits into cotton varieties for pest control. Whether those events are listed chronologically or not, the most challenging one for both Smith and Lorenz was the Boll Weevil Eradication Program.
Boll Weevils, Budworms And More
“There were a lot of unhappy growers when the Boll Weevil Eradication Program was first proposed,” Lorenz said. “That was a time in my career when it wasn’t pleasant to go to grower meetings. A lot of growers were under the assumption that boll weevils weren’t hurting their yields that much. We knew that wasn’t true because we had the research to prove it. I felt very strongly about the program. It was rigorous to say the least, but it all worked out.”
Smith agreed. “That was the most difficult issue I ever faced as an entomologist,” he said. “The eventual success of that program put us in a whole new ballgame — hopefully forever into the future.
“I believe that was the most permanent of the three most notable changes in my career,” Smith said. “We still don’t see any signs of boll weevil coming back into this area. They’re still fighting boll weevil down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. But as long as we can keep them from spreading northward again into the Cotton Belt, I think that one will hold up as the most game-changing accomplishment in cotton production in this area.”
Another notable game changer was the advent of pyrethroids.
“When the pyrethroid chemistry was developed in the late 1970s, it was such an advancement,” Smith said. “We didn’t have anything except methyl parathion or phosphates to work with, which led to resistance of tobacco budworm and often flared secondary pests. We were losing ground fast. The pyrethroids bought us about a decade to manage tobacco budworm and secondary pests. Of course, even that eventually lost out to resistance as well.
“However, at the time, it helped with boll weevil control, because application intervals could be extended from five to seven days. Pyrethroids were highly effective on almost all cotton insects and gave us some much-needed relief for a few years.”
At that point, Lorenz was a young cotton scout in southeast Arkansas. “That’s when the first applications of Pounce and Ambush were going out,” he said. “I remember walking the fields the next morning after we had sprayed a pyrethroid. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing. I described it as an ‘ecological desert’. There was not a living insect. And I remember wondering what I was going to do for the rest of my career. There wouldn’t be anything left to do. Or so I thought at the time.”
As with all “magic bullets,” the blanket relief offered from pyrethroids began to wane and was most problematic in the budworm/bollworm complex — the very problem it was created to solve. That’s when another major development hit the scene.
GMO Cotton Traits For Insects
The introduction of genetically modified traits into cotton varieties was yet another game changer, according to both Lorenz and Smith. “When we started working with GMO varieties like Bollgard and WideStrike, it was suddenly a new world,” Smith said. “We finally had another, very effective tool we could use.”
It was a new technology that radically changed pest management strategy, according to Lorenz.
“When the Bollgard Bt technology came in, it was a lifesaver for us,” he said. “It helped us keep other problems in check because we had a new weapon to fight the budworm/bollworm complex.
“We were one of the first to get that seed, but it wasn’t until June, so it was very late getting planted. It came up, was growing and looking good. It was pre-bloom. But it was one of those years when the worms were really bad.
“On a Thursday and Friday, we got this huge moth flight — one of the biggest egg lays I’ve ever seen in my career. I said to myself, ‘They’re fixing to eat this cotton down to the ground.’
“We came back in on a Monday and started walking the fields. We couldn’t find one living worm — I mean not one single living worm. I was flabbergasted. That’s when I knew the industry really had something.”
The Bollgard technology took the industry by storm, according to Smith. “The first year it was available in 1996, 77% of the cotton acreage in Alabama was planted to Bollgard varieties,” he said. “That’s almost incomprehensible, but worms had been such a horrendous problem. In Extension, we were very supportive of the technology, so I think that helped drive the acceptance and transition.”
Wins And Losses
Along with the wins, there are also inevitable losses — or at least interruptions — throughout the course of a career.
“In addition to pointing out three of the best developments that ever happened in my career, I’ll give you the worst,” Smith said. “That’s when we lost Temik aldicarb for five years. It completely disrupted our early season approach to integrated pest management. Luckily, it’s back now as AgLogic aldicarb.”
Lorenz agreed with that assessment as well. “Temik aldicarb was probably applied on 80% to 90% of our cotton acreage in Arkansas,” he said. “When we lost that one for a few years, it gave thrips and other early season pests a lot of time and space to interfere with and slow down critical early season plant growth.”
It’s not the first, nor will it be the last chemistry to face stiff regulatory challenges — undoubtedly another issue that the new generation of entomologists will deal with.
Plant Bugs: The New Nemesis
The bug complex, particularly plant bugs and stink bugs, have emerged in recent years as perhaps the most problematic pest in cotton — at least in Arkansas and Alabama.
“Back when pyrethroids first came out, everything was super sensitive to it,” Lorenz said. “However, there is always a problem with relying on a single, highly effective compound to solve a problem. That strategy doesn’t work. If time and experience have taught us anything, it’s that if you completely remove something from the picture, there’s always going to be something that takes its place.
“It’s only a matter of time,” he said. “Plant bugs have gone from a minor secondary pest in cotton to one of our most problematic issues. Today, if you want to make a plant bug mad, spray a pyrethroid on it, and it will figure out how to hurt you.”
Although both are grouped together as the “bug complex,” the situation in Alabama is a little different. “Our biggest problem is the stink bug,” Smith said. “We also have plant bugs, but the stink bug comes in about 30 days later and damages the entire boll. It’s an incredible challenge.”
Again, integrated pest management is playing a major role in developing strategies to control plant bugs and stink bugs. “You can’t beat them down with just one approach,” Smith said.
If A Sweep Net Could Talk
The sweep net has seen a lot of long days, muddy rows and represents a wealth of knowledge. Passing it over to a new generation has been both symbolic and rewarding for Smith and Lorenz.
“I thought transitioning into retirement would be difficult for me,” Lorenz said. “It really hasn’t been that way at all. I miss working day-to-day with the people who were so close to me for so many years, but they’re not exactly gone. They still call. And I still answer the phone.”
In Alabama, Ron Smith hasn’t managed to completely remove himself from the Auburn campus, the football games or the marching band.
“I have an office even though I’m technically retired,” he said. “They even put me back on the payroll part time for the current year. I just can’t seem to get away from something I’ve loved so much all my life.