Scouting still valuable peanut tool

With time and money being at a premium for most peanut producers, many are asking, “Is scouting outdated?” Definitely not, says Steve L. Brown, University of Georgia Extension entomologist.

“Do we need to be scouting peanuts? The economic and environmental advantages we saw in scouting 20 to 30 years ago still are there. Maybe even more so from the economic standpoint,” says Brown.

Entomologists have been pushing the idea of scouting for more than 30 years, he says. “But it's a good idea to go back and re-visit some of these concepts to see what we're getting from scouting, what has changed and how we can make it work better for us,” notes Brown.

Scouting and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) were born in an era of DDT and other chemicals that no longer are in use, he says. “This was the driving force behind scouting. Everything that occurred in the 1970s made us more conscientious about the pesticides we were putting on our crops. And, during that same time period, we became more selective about when to use these chemicals.”

IPM, he adds, discouraged the practice of calendar spraying, challenging the prevailing notion that even one bug is too many. Scouting promoted the concept that there was an economic threshold for insects in the field “above which we were getting economic damage and below which we could tolerate.”

“We didn't have to kill every bug in a peanut or any other type of field. IPM has served us well and makes us more efficient with our pesticides. It has reduced pest resistance by improving our environment.

“There's no question IPM in general has helped agriculture over the years, even though it has caused us to make adjustments. There's no question that environmentally and economically, we're much better off because of IPM. We still have many of our pesticides because of IPM. EPA has allowed these products to remain on the market because people have adopted IPM's, and they're not out there spraying just because the calendar says so.”

The big question, says Brown, is where does scouting fit in agriculture in 2002?

“Who can afford to waste pesticides today? The cost of pesticides 30 years ago really didn't have such an impact on our bottom lines. With the cost of some of these products today, we're not out there spraying just because we feel like it. We spray because we think it will give us an economic return.”

Bt technology and boll weevil eradication has made insects less critical in cotton production, notes Brown. “In the 1970s, you couldn't grow cotton unless you were spraying insecticides. We now have farmers who are producing cotton without insecticides, and that once was an unheard of practice. These technologies aren't now available in peanuts, but they could be in a few years.”

Communication technology also has changed insect control, he continues. “Whenever there's an outbreak of a particular pest, you'll probably hear about it on the radio, the Internet or a pest hotline service. All of these things combine to make it a different situation now than 30 years ago.”

Looking at Georgia data from 1975, Brown says it's estimated that about one-third of the state's peanut acreage was being scouted at that time. The number today is even less, he adds.

“And a lot of this is what I call ‘drive-by scouting,’ where you slow down and look at a field from your pickup truck window. That's not the type of scouting we're talking about.”

Several constraints currently exist to using IPM and scouting programs, says Brown.

“The number one constraint is time. The big difference between now and when IPM first came on the scene is that we now have ‘economy of scale.’ Our farms have had to become bigger to survive. Growers are farming more land than they can manage. I see it every day — a farmer and a son or two sons trying to farm several thousand acres. They don't have the time to invest in management.”

Another constraint, he says, is the lack of threshold data. “This is especially true in peanuts. If you're going to use scouting and IPM, you need good data to tell you when to pull the trigger and spray. We've got some data, but we need a lot more.”

Tight profit margins also have hindered the ability to use IPM and scouting, says Brown. “Some growers are less willing to take a chance, and they know they have to make that 4,000 pounds to make a profit or to break even. They won't take a chance on lowering that yield potential.”

A lack of trained scouts also has become an issue, he says. Since cotton acreage in Georgia has increased to 1.5 million acres, and since most of the cotton is scouted, most of the scouts have moved to cotton.

In addition, some growers just prefer a beautiful, lush field, says Brown, and they might treat an insect pest before it reaches threshold levels.

Peanut producers, says Brown, also have lost several effective insecticides in recent years. Other products — to some extent — have taken their place, he adds.

“The fact is that a lot of the older products were better at actually stopping a situation in its tracks. Some of our products today are very good, but a lot of the programs are more preventative in nature.”

It's interesting, says the entomologist, to look at who's doing the scouting in Georgia today. In 1985, it was estimated that 74 percent of all scouts were the farmers themselves or someone in their families.

Nineteen percent of the scouts in 1985 came from Extension-sponsored programs, he says. At that time, 40 counties had organized scouting programs — programs where farmers were paying into a pool in their counties to hire scouts.

“Although we don't have good data, it'd be safe to say that fewer farmers are actually doing the scouting today. And, we have only three county Extension programs for scouting. We're seeing more consultants and more hired scouts.”

Time constraints have caused this change, says Brown. “The best thing a farmer can do is to pay someone to go out and collect the data needed to make informed decisions.”

What should you expect of a scout or a consultant? It's good to know, says Brown, whenever you reach a threshold for a particular insect pest and a spray is required.

“That's great, but it may not be cost effective to pay a scout to do just that. We don't spray a lot peanuts in Georgia for insects, and we need to get more than that from scouting.

“For example, spider mites are a critical pest of peanuts, and we know we can save a lot of money by catching them early and spot spraying. We also need information on soil insects, and you can't see them unless you pull up plants and look for pod damage. We can't stop some of these problems, but we can know the field history so we can apply a preventative treatment next year.”

A scout needs to look for things other than insects, says Brown. “A good scout can help you to make timely herbicide applications. He or she also can help you to fine-tune your disease control program. Scouts also can provide information for the various computer models that currently are available.”

Using a scout is the best way to collect information, he says. “It's all about being more efficient — using information to make better decisions. We must get smarter to survive.”

The cost of scouting services in 1985 was $2.50 per acre, says Brown, including once per week scouting for the entire growing season. That same cost now is estimated at $3 per acre.

“Not very many inputs have stayed that close to 1985 prices. It's still a bargain, and it pays.”

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