Fighting Fire Ants Helps Protect Livestock, Hay, and Finances
Warmer spring temperatures mean more active fire ants and increasing headaches for area producers.
Yet many Alabama producers put fire ant management toward the bottom of their spring activities – a practice researchers and experts are working to change.
The Seen and Unseen Dangers of Fire Ants
Most producers understand the obvious dangers of fire ant infestations on their operations. The toxic and painful bites of fire ants pose a significant health hazard to humans and animals that come into contact with the aggressive pests. In a 2006 study by Texas A&M University, nearly half (43 percent) of the more than 1,000 Texas producers surveyed reported harm to a human as a result of fire ants on their operation or home. Those same producers estimated an average total cost of $1,691.41 per farm due to fire ant damage.
George Schwartz saw the damage of fire ants firsthand on his Alberta, Alabama, ranch. The mounds not only dotted his pastureland, but also proved to be a challenge for pasture maintenance and haying operations.
Additionally, fire ants cause damage to electrical equipment, farm equipment and irrigation systems, and have been known to harm livestock.
"Treating my fields proved to be a smart management decision. Maintaining cutter heads takes time and money, and fewer mounds reduce my operating costs," Schwartz said.
Keeping the Fields Clean
Some producers are more concerned about fire ant control than others.
Auburn University’s Lawrence "Fudd" Graham, coordinator of the Alabama Fire Ant Management Program, said Alabama producers take a variety of approaches to fire ant management – some producers are very concerned about the aesthetics of their pastureland and regularly treat their operation; some wait until the problem is out of control and then use a more aggressive treatment and finally, others choose to ignore their fire ant colonies entirely. Graham urges producers to take a more systematic approach to their fire ant treatment whenever possible.
Spring is an ideal time to address fire ant control as ants begin their spring/summer activity and foraging. Graham said he usually tries to understand the producer’s individual needs and expectations when making fire ant treatment recommendations.
"There are a variety of treatment options now available," Graham said. "However, they all provide different types of control and activity. Producers need to know how each may be used within their operations and when to expect the results."
One approach many producers choose is fire ant bait. These products are actually a food source particle laced with an insect control. When worker ants come upon the "food," it is carried back to the mound distributing the control agent among the colony. Baits provide longer-lasting control and are considered safer than other traditional insecticide treatments registered for pastures. Most baits can be bought or ordered at farm supply stores.
Producers should understand the differences among the various ant baits and their registered uses:
• Traditional Ant Baits (Amdro Pro): This agent is more like traditional insecticides – chemicals that, in essence, kill the ants upon ingestion. For those producers needing relatively quick results, the active ingredients in this compound will kill many workers and the queen within a few short weeks. However, reinfestation occurs faster than with insect growth regulators, with populations rebounding in three to nine months.
• Insect Growth Regulators (IGR) (Esteem Ant Bait, Extinguish):
These compounds differ from insecticide-based ant baits in that the chemical stops the queen from laying fertile eggs but does not kill the workers. After about 6-12 weeks, the colony will die and not regenerate because old workers die and the sterile queen cannot produce new workers. For producers who may not need immediate results, many experts recommend insect growth regulators for a longer-lasting control–often up to 18 months without return colonies.
Hoping for fewer applications, Schwartz opted for an IGR-based ant bait when he treated his mound-laden fields.
"I knew it may take a bit longer to see results at the beginning, but ultimately it meant fewer trips back out to the pasture," Schwartz said.
Schwartz used a newer IGR – Esteem Ant Bait – that has shown strong results in his field for months. Also important for many producers, Esteem has no grazing or withdrawal restrictions, meaning cattle or horses do not have to be moved for treatment.
"I’m very happy with the residual coverage of Esteem. Last week I was in fields I had treated a year ago and there are still no fire ants," Schwartz said. "A product that lasts a year to a year-and-a-half is a great product."
Making Ant Bait Work in Your Operation
Yet even with these options producers should not expect an overnight solution to an established infestation. Graham urges growers to adopt a proactive approach to fire ant treatment, using a combination of the various chemistries to address current problems and prepare for future maintenance.
"Producers should not wait until the situation is out of control," Graham said. "It’s not like the old days where you have to just sit and tolerate fire ants. There are too many good options for someone to just accept fire ants in their fields damaging their livestock and slowing down their operation.
"Producers need to seriously consider what they should be doing to treat their fire ants. The Alabama Fire Ant Management Program has placed over 40 spreaders in local extension offices. These may be borrowed by producers and others to use for spreading fire ant bait on larger areas," Graham said.