–Staff photo by Coppedge
Anyone who has ever wondered how agriculture scientists and range management specialists come up with some of their facts, figures and recommendations for such matters as brush control can at least get a taste of the process with a program called Pestman, which sounds like it might be a superhero – or villain – but is actually a free decision support tool that helps landowners manage villainous species of weeds, plants and trees on their property.
Available only in Texas and New Mexico, Pestman allows the user to select the pest plant, state and plant density and then look up the recommendations for that plant. The recommendations include a list of management control options along with how much each of those options will cost. Treatment costs are upgrade annually, to reflect fluctuating costs.
Wayne Hamilton, an AgriLife Research range scientist and one of the Pestman developers, said the program is designed to help landowners two ways – by listing the method of control and calculating the costs. The user is first taken to a USDA website that identifies the weed and lists the various control options.
“It first allows the user to identify the appropriate technology, whether it’s mechanical or chemical, of dealing with the problem,” he said. “You can stop at that point or you can go to the next step, which is an economic analysis program. That will calculate the value of the treatment against the investment.”
In a year like this one, when brush is about the only thing making a go of it in the state’s pastures – and some of those are in hiding this year, too – brush control can also help rid the pasture of plants that are robbing the scant forage that is available of valuable moisture. Hamilton said that brush control is one of the most pervasive problems that landowners and operators face.
“We take a lot of surveys to find out what issues landowners are most concerned with, and brush control is identified as one of the top four or five issues in all cases,” he said.
Pestman combines two existing programs, EXSEL and GAAT, to make its recommendations and access the costs. EXSEL (Expert System for Brush and Weed Control Technology Selection) was designed in the 1980s to help AgriLife Research and Extension personnel and land managers with brush and weed management decisions. GAAT (Grazingland Alternative Analysis Tool) is of about the same vintage and was designed to help producers predict the economic tradeoffs of various brush management grazing practices.
Richard Conner, with the Department of Agricultural Economics and another of the Pestman developers, said each of the old programs was effective in their time, but their time passed when new web-based technologies came along.
“Pestman is basically an update of the two earlier tools. EXSEL was a Doss program, before the Web. So was GAAT,” he said. “With Pestman, we basically put the two programs together with updated technology.”
The program was tested extensively before it was offered to the public. Texas A&M University and New Mexico State University were the primary academic researchers, collaborating with the USDA Risk Management Agency (which provided funding for research and development), Texas AgriLife Research and private industry, including Grazingland Management Systems, Inc. and AgForce consulting companies.
Loren Naylor, also a member of the Pestman team, said the program has logged about 3,500 visitors and 1,500 repeat customers since December of 2009. “That tells us that a lot of them are coming back to use the site again, which is a good sign,” he said. “A lot of NRCS field agents and extension agents use it, and now we’re seeing more private landowners use it.”
Naylor added that the chemical costs associated with treatment options are updated regularly. Mechanical costs are due to be updated, and he hopes to add an enhancement to the tool that more specifically targets cost to that individual producer.
“The costs are measured now as general regional costs,” he said. “If we can get the funding, we’d like to add an enhancement that breaks it down to your own individual cost, what you would pay for it from a local supplier. This would help get it as accurate as possible.”
Pestman also includes “forage response curves” which predicts how long it will take the treatments to work and how much forage will be saved as a result of the practices. The program analyzes profit from increased forages following treatment compared to the amount of forage that would be produced without the treatment. Hamilton recommends that producers use extra care when calculating the response curve.
“The treatments and the price of treatments – those really have to be weighed heavily by the user,” he said. “Or, if they don’t have enough knowledge to be comfortable with that part of the program, they might want to contact an expert for help from their extension agent, a range management specialist or an NRCS field agent.”
To for more information and to access the tool, go to pestman.tamu.edu.