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Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Harvey was hard on farms, too

It wasn’t just the cities like Houston that suffered a lot of damage from Harvey.

Harvey did more than transform cityscape by turning highways into rivers; It also upended life for farmers and ranchers across dozens of counties that Gov. Greg Abbott declared disaster zones. The powerful winds and rains destroyed crops, displaced livestock and disrupted trade.

Texas typically exports nearly one-fourth of the country’s wheat and a major portion of its corn and soybeans, according to the state Department of Agriculture, but a shutdown of ports ahead of Harvey halted export.

At least 1.2 million beef cows graze in in 54 counties Abbott had added to his disaster list as of Tuesday, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. State and industry officials did not immediately have data on how many were lost, but news reports and social media have circulated images of wandering cattle and dramatic rescues of the animals from floodwaters.

[…]

Harvey also affected cropland. Texas rice producers had already harvested about 75 percent of the year’s rice crop, according to the Agriculture Department, but wind and water likely damaged storage bins, leading to more crop loses.

Harvey hit cotton farmers like Reed particularly hard, destroying their prospects of a banner year. While of region’s crops — corn, for instance, were out of the ground before the storm hit, cotton was another story.

“A lot of cotton didn’t get harvested,” said Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau. “We know that they were racing the clock trying to beat landfall…I think anything left on the clock, you got to consider that a total loss.”

In Matagorda County, for instance, just 70 percent of cotton had been harvested, while only 35 percent was out of the ground in Wharton County, Hall said.

What’s more, high-speed winds ripped apart cotton modules — machines that pound processed cotton into rectangular blocks — leaving them strewn about fields and gin yards.

You can help farmers and ranchers affected by Harvey via the State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund. There are a lot of small farms in the path of Harvey, and a lot of farms that supply Houston’s restaurants. One example of that is Gundermann Acres, which was completely wiped out. They farm vegetables – you’ve probably eaten some of their produce – so they can’t get crop insurance. You can help them out here if you want. As with everything else, it’s going to take all of these folks some time to recover, too.

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

Making room for quail

Preservation isn’t just for urban elites.

Jim Willis knows it isn’t easy to love a prairie. The quilt of burnt orange and brown that covers his Colorado County land can’t awe or inspire the way a canyon or mountain range does. But he can step onto his porch on a crisp morning, take a sip of coffee and hear the three-count whistle of the northern bobwhite quail.

The moment is enough to reveal the subtle beauty of an unbroken terrain of yellow Indiangrass, little bluestem and other tall grasses. That’s because the land was barren of wildlife not too long ago, unable to support anything but cattle.

Willis began restoring his overgrazed pasture into native grasslands more than a decade ago, placing him at the fore of a new prairie populism in Texas. Across the state, rural landowners, a new generation of urban refugees, are removing acres of Bermuda grass and creating pioneer-era landscapes that require less water and chemicals and provide habitat for a variety of critters.

The push is in response to the steady decline of the quail, an iconic Texas bird that uses the tall grasses for shelter and food. But the benefits of native grasslands go beyond one species, Willis said.

“Quail really is a canary in a coal mine,” he said. “If they’re healthy, you have a healthy ecosystem. ”

Texas is known for its bucolic hill country and mysterious piney woods, the rugged beauty of Big Bend National Park and a seemingly endless coast. But it’s largely a prairie state, and those grasslands are disappearing because of modern agricultural practices, development and fragmentation by roads and ranchettes.

The changing landscape has put quail in peril, with the bird’s numbers dropping 75 percent over the past 30 years or so, according to state biologists.

A carpetlike pasture planted for cattle grazing “might as well be a Wal-Mart parking lot” to quail, said Jon Hayes, a biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the bird to nest, forage and hide from predators, heat and wind.

To help reverse the quail population’s decline, Texas lawmakers last year earmarked $6 million for restoring prime habitat, expanding research into the species and educating landowners.

The state’s primary goal is to rehabilitate prairie in three areas: the Interstate 35 corridor just south of Dallas, the rolling plains near Oklahoma and a 12-county cluster beyond the westward march of Houston’s sprawl. The key is to connect restored plots to one another to increase the bird’s odds of survival.

Already, what began with 225 acres owned by Willis now stretches across 40,000 acres. That includes seven miles of contiguous reconstructed prairie that connects his property to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles west of Houston.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the A&M Agrilife Extension Service have lots of information about the decline of the quail population in Texas and the ongoing efforts to do something about it. As a to-the-bone urbanite, I know nothing about any of this, but I’m glad there are people who do and who care enough to try to make it better. I wish them the best of luck.

The feral hogs of Montgomery County

Because three blog posts about feral hogs are better than two.

Feral hogs – which some find more pesky than mosquitoes and more invasive than fire ants – are alive and well in Montgomery County.

Officials in The Woodlands say that there have been no recent sightings of wild pigs in neighborhoods – but in a growing problem has been reported throughout the county.

“We have not been hearing anything about feral hogs for the better part of several years,” Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation for the Township, said.

He said that the boars generally reside in larger spaces – closer to water sources like creeks.

“We know of them in natural preserves,” Nunes added. “When it’s dry, they come into neighborhoods looking for food.”

Recent rains have resulted in no sightings, he said.

Keith Crenshaw, with the Houston branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Urban Wildlife Program, said swine in the city stay near drainage ditches and flood control corridors.

Crenshaw said Kingwood had an increase in sightings in October, after land was cleared and the way was opened for hogs to move into neighborhoods.

“The wildlife will disperse,” he said. “And hogs don’t have a major predator other than people.”

Still, Crenshaw maintains that wild pigs may live in suburban areas without humans knowing.

“It’s totally likely that people aren’t even aware they’re here,” he said.

[…]

As the county’s human population continues to grow and more land is developed, [Montgomery County extension agent for agriculture Michael] Heimer expects more hogs will move into neighborhoods.

For example, he said several homes will be constructed in what was formerly Camp Strake, a 2,000-acre property north of The Woodlands.

“When they start developing that, we’ll see a lot of wildlife displaced,” Heimer said.

In the meantime, he said it would help the extension office if county residents would report any hog sightings.

“A lot of this goes unrecorded,” he said. “Anything we can do to get information will help. It gives us a way to document what’s going on.”

We’re familiar with the feral hogs of Kingwood. Am I a bad person for admitting that the thought of feral hogs roaming the master-planned streets of Kingwood and The Woodlands makes me giggle? As for what the good people of The Woodlands can do about this menace, I recommend they start by downloading the Texas A&M feral hog app for helpful advice. Keeping the little buggers in line is everyone’s job.

Friedman for feral hogs

As the man once said, Why the hell not?

As meat prices rise, a candidate for agriculture commissioner is proposing beefing up the state’s program to harvest and market wild hog meat in a way he says will create jobs and revenue for Texas.

Kinky Friedman, a Democrat running for the statewide office, said feral hogs are a largely untapped industry that could be a lucrative endeavor for the state rather than a waste of life.

“If you are going to kill a bunch of feral hogs, let’s at least do it for a profit and business for the state,” he said. “To kill all these hogs and let them rot doesn’t make sense.”

Wild pigs are one of the biggest problems for many ranch and landowners in Texas, said Billy Higginbotham, professor and extension wildlife fishery specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

The population in Texas has increased by about 20 percent each year because hogs have the “highest reproductive rate of any large mammal in the world,” he said. Some food banks and small grocers in the state and country sell the meat, which is described by the state’s Parks and Wildlife service as “tasty” and lean.

Land owners and hunters can trap and sell the live animals to about 100 buying stations in the state, which are licensed and regulated by the Texas Animal Health Commission, where they are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture before the hogs are slaughtered and sold.

The stations sell the meat to processing plants, which sell the pork for human consumption across the country and in Europe and Asia, Higginbotham said.

“Texas is literally able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” he said, adding that 460,000 hogs in Texas were federally inspected, slaughtered and sold between 2004-2009.

The state, however, does not pull any taxes or revenue from the transactions of the buyback program, which is the only of its kind in the country.

Friedman, a songwriter and entertainer, said the program is a good start, but the state should become more involved and broaden the program and rake some of the profits.

I confess that I don’t know much about this program, so I can’t really evaluate Friedman’s idea. That said, the feral hog problem is statewide and well-known, and the steps we have undertaken so far to deal with it, even the more extreme ones, have had little effect. I don’t see how it could hurt to try to encourage more participation in hog control by making it financially more attractive for the state and for interested parties. Even if the effect on the hog population is minimal, as it will likely be, the need for food is real and the potential to do good is there. A little outside the box thinking here is welcome. Kudos to the Kinkster for bringing it up.

We’re exporting feral hogs

You’re welcome, neighboring states.

Feral pigs have already taken over Texas and are expanding their numbers in other states, but federal and state land managers think they have a chance to tip the balance in New Mexico. They’re willing to bet $1 million in federal funds on a yearlong pilot project aimed at eradicating the pigs and using what they learn here to keep them from gaining a foothold elsewhere.

It marks the first time the U.S. Department of Agriculture has teamed up with a state to develop a comprehensive plan for getting rid of the pigs.

A small army of state and federal employees has been trained to stalk, trap and kill New Mexico’s feral pigs. Various techniques have been used by wildlife managers and landowners for decades in the fight against feral swine, but the New Mexico team is focusing on determining what combination works best in which circumstances and how effectively helicopters can be to track the pigs across vast landscapes.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve with this so we can prevent a lot of the damage that we know will be coming if we don’t do anything about it,” said USDA Wildlife Services state director Alan May. “Sport hunting pressure alone won’t be enough to stop a population from spreading.”

You can say that again.

In Mississippi, peanut farmers often wake to find uprooted plants. In Texas, where there are an estimated 2.6 million pigs, the animals have moved from destroying pastures and crops to tearing up suburban gardens.

Texans spend about $7 million a year on trying to control pigs and repair some of the damage, said Billy Higginbotham, a professor and wildlife specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center.

“We’re not like New Mexico, Nebraska or Kansas, for example, where we’re just beginning to get a few and can probably think in terms of eradication,” he said. “What we’re simply trying to do here is not even use the “e” word — eradication — but to think in terms of managing the damage.”

SciGuy reminds us how challenging that is.

In 2010, an estimated 750,000 pigs were harvested, or 29 percent of the population. That sounds harsh, but it’s really not.

The scientists estimate with such a harvest the feral hog population will still double every five years. Even a high harvest — 41 percent of the population, annually — will allow the wild pig population to actually grow by 12 percent a year.

An annual harvest rate of 66 percent is required to hold the feral hog population in check, the scientists believe.

That’s something like 1.8 million of the beasties a year, at current population levels. There aren’t enough helicopters in the state for that. Good luck controlling your hog invasion, New Mexico.

Hog killin’ update

Because I know you like to know about this sort of thing.

After a competition to kill feral hogs left more than 1,000 of the destructive animals dead in Hays and Caldwell counties, plans are emerging to further control the population.

Both counties participated in the state’s Hog Out County Grants Program, a competition among counties to kill the most feral hogs and to educate people about the hogs from October through December.

The 28 counties that participated last year, including Hays, Caldwell and Williamson, earned points for the number of hogs killed and the number of participants at educational workshops.

According to the state’s Department of Agriculture, Texas is home to nearly 2.6 million feral hogs, the largest population nationwide, and one that’s growing. The Hog Out County Grants Program is one of two the department funds that is aimed at eliminating feral hogs, which damage property, crops and pastures.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimates that the economic damage cause by hogs statewide is $500 million annually. The funds the department will award as a result of the Hog Out program are to be used by counties to implement a plan to reduce their feral hog populations.

The county with the most points wins $20,000. The second- and third-place counties earn $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.

It’s all just a drop in the bucket, really. As we heard before, killing 750,000 of these beasts a year would not be enough to cause a drop in their population. But what are you gonna do? And in case you were wondering, yes, they’re going to try to do something useful with all that meat. Good luck with that.

The hogs are winning

So many feral hogs. So much more needed to deal with them.

Texas upped the ante in its battle with feral hogs a year ago when it passed a “pork choppers” law that allows recreational shooters to blast wild pigs from low-flying helicopters.

The state doesn’t track the number of hogs killed by aerial gunners, but a new report from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service clearly shows the prolific pigs are winning the war.

As in all conflicts, there is money to be made.

Some helicopter companies say business is better than they ever imagined for shoots that cost from $1,500 to $2,000.

On the ground, a growing number of trappers, landowners and wholesalers are cashing in on all that free-roaming protein by selling trapped hogs to meat-processing plants.

Some skeptics doubt the effectiveness of the airborne assaults, but Dustin Johnson of Cedar Ridge Aviation in Knox City says the 130 or so shooters he has flown have taken out 3,000 to 4,000 pigs since Sept. 1, 2011, when the helicopter hog hunts were legalized.

“We whack ’em and stack ’em,” Johnson said. “We went to the Paris area in December and killed 600 in one weekend. The landowners were begging us to come back.”

But those numbers amount only to minor casualties in the hog war.

Consider that, in 2010, more than 753,000 feral hogs, or 29 percent of the estimated 2.6 million wild pigs in Texas, were eradicated by some means, according to the new report by AgriLife, which is part of the Texas A&M University system.

With that annual harvest rate, it will take only five years for the Texas feral hog population to double to 5.2 million, said Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife and fisheries specialist and one of the authors of the report.

“We estimate in Texas that you have to remove about 66 percent just to hold the population stable,” he said. “If we remove 750,000 pigs a year, we are still falling behind.”

The report is not available online. As we know, porkchopping has had some effect but not that much. There just aren’t any easy answers for this.

It was more than drought that killed the trees

So say the experts.

Don’t blame the drought for killing an estimated 506 million trees in Texas. At least, don’t blame it exclusively.

The drought is only part of the story of why trees are dying, according to a new report by the AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University.

In most cases, the report says, the trees that died in 2011 were already stressed from pre-existing factors such as overcrowding, growing on the wrong site, age, soil compaction, trenching or inappropriate use of herbicides.

“If not for these factors, a large proportion of the trees that died might have recovered from the drought,” according to the report by Dr. Eric Taylor, a forestry specialist with the extension service.

The 2011 drought “severely weakened mature trees, making them susceptible to opportunistic pathogens like hypoxylon canker and insects like pine bark engraver beetles,” Taylor said in the report.

The report helps explain to the public what experts see, said Jim Houser, a forest health coordinator with the Texas Forest Service.

“That’s true, we tend to simplistically (blame) the drought,” Houser said. “In actuality, it’s a variety of problems that tend to combine together to kill trees. Certainly, the drought is the main problem.”

You can read the report here. The point they’re making is that if the overall health of our trees had been better to begin with, we’d have lost fewer of them during the drought. The trees that did survive are likely to be weaker than before, so their health will need to be safeguarded as well.

Houser said Central Texans can still save their trees if they water.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if my grass dies; I can replant,’ ” Houser said. Trees are another matter.

“They shouldn’t abandon their trees,” he said.

A good way to water your tree is to take one of those big plastic paint buckets, poke a hole or two near the bottom, put it next to your tree, and fill it with water from your garden hose. The bucket holds enough water for a good drink, and the holes allow the water to be released slowly enough to really soak in. That’s what we (and by “we” I mean “Tiffany”) did for our trees last year, anyway. Hope this helps.

“Crazy ants” becoming a bigger menace

You may recall hearing about the “crazy ants”, also known as Rasberry ants, last year. They’re apparently gaining a large foothold in Texas and other states, and are threatening honeybees wherever they go.

The range of the so-called Rasberry crazy ant has more than doubled in the past year, creating a swath in 11 counties beginning near Houston and moving north, scientists say.

Given the ant’s encroachment on livestock, hay bales and a few honeybee farms, some are trying to classify it as an agricultural pest, one that must soon be stopped.

“It really is spreading at an alarming rate and we need to do research now,” said Danny McDonald, a Texas A&M University doctoral student who is examining the tiny creature’s biology and ecology. “There’s no time to wait.”

But serious research requires serious dollars.

The Texas Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund in-depth research on the Rasberry crazy ant, but only if it gets the pest classification. And to do that, state officials say more research must be done. It’s a sticky Catch-22.

“This is absolutely idiotic,” said Tom Rasberry, the exterminator for whom the ant is named because he fought against them early on. “If killing honeybees does not put it in the ag pest category I don’t know what does.”

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The ants — formally known as “paratrenicha species near pubens” — are called “crazy” because they wander erratically instead of marching in regimented lines. Although they eat stinging fire ants, they also feed on beneficial insects such as ladybugs and honeybees.

The USDA’s Agriculture Research Service recently released about $30,000 for a yearlong study by Texas AgriLife Extension Service and A&M’s Center for Urban & Structural Entomology to determine how quickly the ants are spreading.

“Our folks know this is a very serious issue and we’re jumping on it to make sure we find a solution very quickly,” said Bryan Black, Texas Department of Agriculture spokesman. “We want to protect agriculture and we want to protect the public, absolutely.”

Critics say the initial study won’t address the ant’s food preferences, reproduction cycles, lifespan, temperature tolerance or effect on wildlife.

“There are literally thousands of things we need to find out to get on a fast track, otherwise we’re going to do just like we did with the fire ant and wait until it was too late,” Rasberry warned.

I sure hope that’s not how it goes. If money is an issue I would hope that this is the sort of thing that can get bipartisan cooperation and thus done relatively easily. Who wants to be pro-ant?