Beneficials Benefit the Bottom Line!
This biological control advocate says higher yields are not always the answer in cotton production. Cost also enters into the profit picture...
By Lana Robinson
While keeping every single pest in a cotton crop may sound good, anything close to that comes with a price-one that a farmer in these times of drought, low commodity prices, and pressures from the environmental community simply can't afford. But what if you could reduce pests to a manageable level without it costing an arm and a leg? Does it really matter if you make two-and-a-half bale cotton, as opposed to one-and-a-half, if your net profit is greater with the lower yield?
"Let's make this crop cheap first," is the philosophy of Frank Junfin, co-owner with his wife, Adele, of Kunafin, a pioneer company in the field of biological integrated insect control (BIIC), located at Quemado, near the Texas-Mexico border. "A cotton farmer has so much thrown at him before he even sees a bolo of cotton-flea hopers, hail storms, natural droughts. We approach the problem first using all our natural forces. Keep the plants healthy with proper fertilization, proper tilling, and get our bug populations going, our lacewings, lady beetles, and trichogramma. We build these populations and monitor them. We go through the season now, and keep adding bugs, not jut one release, continual releases. Now we want to take it to the gin. At this point, if we need to do a few chemical applications, we can afford to do it. We're not anti-chemical, just business-minded."
The Junfins have bee producing and supplying beneficial insects for BIIC since 1959, initiating some of the first Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs in the United States. Frank Junfin, who earned his degree in entomology at Texas A&M University, and his late father, Joe Junfin, an entomologist trained in Europe, founded the business. The father-and son team began by consulting and supplying trichogramma wasps to farming operations for insect control in field crops.
In 1978, the mass rearing facilities for the production of various species of beneficials and fly parasites was established, using the original family name, Kunafin. Today, Frank Junfin manages day-to-day operations at the 30,000 square-foot, temperature-and moisture-controlled insectary, coordinating activities of 27 employees-more in peak times of the year, a big part of their business in providing fly parasites to commercial feedlots, dairies, poultry, and horse operations.
The Junfins also provide the education and consultation to support their programs in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Frank Junfin does most of the phone consulting while Adele Junfin travels to interfaces with customers, promote the BIIC concept at trade shows and private meetings, and to put on seminars.
"I have some customers I've been serving for 30 years. We were the first people to have over 25,000 acres under commercially biological control," notes Junfin.
Enhances Effects of Bt
Junfin says beneficials also work hand in glove with Bt cotton, enhancing the overall effort to reduce pests.
"Bt cotton is a good tool, but insects aren't dumb. They will build some kind of adaptation, some kind of resistance, because they've still got to eat. What I tell farmers is that the Bt is something we can use, but nothing is 100 percent effective-even the most powerful insecticides. They still need to release beneficials," he maintains.
History suggests farmers shouldn't put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to fighting insects.
"In the 1960's, there were farmers spraying cotton crops 30 times down here. We helped them cut it down to five times," he says. "Then pyrethroids came on the scene. Lots of folks thought they were the wonder chemical. A lot of people abandoned their BIIC programs. Dad told them, 'In 15 to 20 years, we won't be fighting Russians and Germans anymore. We'll be fighting bugs. We're spraying and killing them with chemicals, but we're getting insect resistance.' And sure enough, he was right."
Another problem during that period, said Junfin, was that professors and researchers were more concerned with yields than economics.
"In the Winter garden area, where farmers could grow some of the highest yields for onions and four-bale-cotton, they said, "They only go two-bale cotton with Joe Junfin," he recalls, "Today, I'm glad to see the entomology department at Texas A&M is leading biological control programs. Funding has been a problem, but we're starting to see better research."
Prices depend on species and volumes. Junfin recommends releases of a minimum of 10,000, and up to 50,000, trichogramma per acre. The cost is 10 cents per 1,000, or about $1 per acre for the minimum. He recommends a thousand lacewings per acre, at a cost of $3.50 per acre, and a thousand lady beetles, at $2.50 per acre. It costs about $25 an acre to release two or three times, he says.
Beneficial insects and parasites go into dormancy when the ground temperature cools in the fall.
"We're always going to have some survival from those releases, just as you would have beneficials survive the winter in nature," he adds.
Unfortunately, Junfin doesn't have a natural enemy for the boll weevil, which has curtailed cotton production in many areas, despite the ongoing boll weevil eradication program.
"Dawson County used to have 400,000 acres of cotton, and they used a lot of bugs," he recalls. "At one time, I did consulting for about 20,000 acres around Lamesa. Now, I've got about 8,000 acres out there."
The drought has also taken a toll. Junfin says cotton acreage is going to be very low in the Winter garden this year, with perhaps only enough to help keep the gins open.
The cotton-friendly, adult ladybug will lay her eggs in yellow clusters under a leaf or stem. Within a week, the eggs hatch into orange and black larvae, tine alligator shaped insects. After three to four weeks, the larvae enters the pupae stage and after one more week, the young adults emerge, ready to feed.
Both adults and larvae feed primarily on aphids, but will also pre n eggs and caterpillars of various moth pests. They are most abundant in cotton when aphids are present, or when cotton is blooming, as they also feed on pollen and nectar.
"Ladybugs do have a tendency to migrate, but they're still a good tool. And they leave their eggs behind," he notes.
Another beneficial mass-reared at the insectary is the lacewing. The common green lacewing (Chrysopa carnea) and the green lacewing (Chrysopa rufilabris) are the most abundant in nature. The female lays her eggs-anywhere from 200 to 800 of them-on foliage. In a few days they hatch. The tiny, mottled brown larvae, which are similar in appearance to an alligator with pincers, emerge with a voracious appetite and will feed on aphids, small worms, insect eggs, mites, thrips, immature whitefly, and other insects.
"During this stage of its life cycle, it will devour up to 200 victims a week. It them pupates by spinning a cocoon with a silken thread. The adult lacewing emerges in about five days and the life cycle repeats itself," Junfin explains.
Dr. Allen Knutson, Extension entomologist, notes that green lacewing larvae are important predators of aphids, mites, whiteflies, and eggs and small larvae of bollworms, budworms, armyworms, and loopers. Lacewings become very abundant when aphids are present. Adult lacewings also feed on insects.
Trichogramma are among the smallest of insects, having a wing-spread of about 1/50th of an inch. Despite its size, this beneficial is an efficient destroyer of the eggs of many moth and butterflies which are leaf-eaters in the larval stage. According to Junfin, these parasitic insects disperse readily in their search for over 200 species of eggs to parasitize.
"The trichogramma seeks out eggs, but does not feed on or harm vegetation. It is an effective tool because it kills its host before the plant can be damaged," the entomologist notes. "They can be used in a variety of crops as well as in horticultural and ornamental plants, and the cost is so low that it is feasible to purchase them for massive releases."
Trichogramma wasps parasitize eggs of bollworms, budworms, loopers, and other caterpillar insects. They are shipped on squares of black paper with about 5,000-plus eggs glued to a one-inch square, timed to emerge near arrival.
"We work very closely with our USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) university professors, mass-rearing species they are collecting," says Junfin.
Every precaution is taken to ensure the health of beneficials. They are also well fed. For example, it takes 600 to 800 pounds of whole wheat a day to grow sitotroga-the food source for many beneficials and host for trichogramma-at the insectary. According to Frank Junfin, the sitotroga, which has a 40-day cycle, produces 200 million eggs daily here.
All bugs are shipped in breathable, plastic bags, filled with recyclable, shredded paper-18 bags to a box. Rice hulls are added to the lacewing packet.
"Lacewing larvae are cannibalistic. We put a frozen egg in there so they have something to feed on right away," he adds.
Beneficials Aid Pecan Growers
Junfin says for the first time, at a recent, organized meeting of pecan producers hosted by Western Pecan in Las Cruces, N.M., university system entomologists noted the value of including commercially-reared insects as a part of an IPM strategy.
"I sell most of my bugs for pecans in Mexico. At Saragossa, a lot of producers use bugs," he says.
Junfin provides lacewings and other beneficial to pecan, apple, and citrus growers, as well as to owners of vineyards, commercial greenhouses and malls and hotels with atriums. Customers also include a number of area vegetable farmers.
"We do sell some beneficials for sorghum and corn, but not stored grain," he adds.
Lately, Junfin has observed a renewed interest in beneficials from traditional farmers.
"The feedlot industry knew they were facing big problems, so fly parasites have been our primary focus. Now, people with crops are coming back to the old Joe Junfin, total integrated approach," he says.
Issues of drift from aerial spraying, loss of chemicals because of the registration process, the new FQPA risk cup, consumer concerns - all of these matters reducing the number of options and tools a farmer has for fighting pests makes the Kunafin alternative viable, Junfin believes. He also sees the use of beneficials as a way to counter environmental concerns.
"Every move a farmer makes, he's getting scrutinized by environmentalists and extremists. Putting bugs out there is one way to get the forces of nature going our way, so maybe they won't be so hostile towards us," he suggests.