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Pestman Offers Online Help for Landowners and Range Specialists Alike

By Katrina Huffstutler

Roughly 20 years ago, before home computers with Internet access — even before the Windows® operating system was born — Wayne Hamilton, Dr. Richard Conner and Dr. Tommy Welch created 2 computer-based decision support systems for natural resources managers.

One, the Expert System for Brush and Weed Control Technology Selection (EXSEL), was designed to help identify the best method of treatment for a specific brush or weed problem. The other, the Grazingland Alternative Analysis Tool (GAAT), offered an economic breakdown. But as technology (the original programs were DOS-based) and herbicides changed, a new system was needed. After receiving a grant from USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA), the decision was made to create a program that not only featured improved technology and data, but also brought the best aspects of EXSEL and GAAT into one. Pestman would be that program.

All-in-one tool

Pestman is a web-based decision support system that assists rangeland managers in making economically beneficial brush and weed management decisions in Texas and New Mexico. It is free and available online at pestman.tamu.edu.

Hamilton, an AgriLife Research range scientist and principle investigator with the Center for Natural Resource Information Technology, says Pestman provides "sound pest management options associated with weed and brush control, as well as costs associated with the options considered.

"This tool allows managers to analyze the economic risk or benefit associated with controlling vegetative pests invading America's forage lands," he continues.

The application is a collaborative effort of federal and state agencies, including USDA-RMA, New Mexico State University, AgriLife Research, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, the Texas A&M University System, and private industry, including Grazingland Management Systems Inc. and AgForce consulting companies.

Hamilton says tools previously available through EXSEL and GAAT were built into Pestman.

"EXSEL was still being used, but the problem was it got out of date as companies began to market the same (chemical) compounds under their (herbicide trade) name. It was never built in a database system where that information or costs for mechanical and chemical treatments could be updated easily," he says.

Another feature not available in EXSEL was the ability to calculate economic outcomes when creating a scenario using mechanical or chemical brush, or weed treatment alternatives, Hamilton says.

"We wanted to bring an economic component into a single program combined with the technology selection capability," he says, adding that they wanted to make the tool available so users could develop an economic analysis and see what the cost and benefits would be over a 10- to 20-year period.

"Pestman is an integrated tool of all of these previous tools into one unified system," Hamilton says, adding that Dr. Allan McGinty, Texas AgriLife Extension, and Dr. Kirk McDaniel, New Mexico State University contributed to the development of the program.

How it works

Loren Naylor, research assistant and one of the online tool’s developers, says Pestman provides the user accurate, up-to-date cost estimates of mechanical and weed and brush treatments.

"Costs of treatments are updated annually," he says. "This tool provides the treatment with an example forage response curve that can be easily modified to mimic forage response specific to the user's range condition."

The user starts by selecting the pest plant, state of residence (currently valid only in Texas and New Mexico), and plant density. The Pestman program returns the best available treatments and their effectiveness along with cost-per-acre and application rates for chemical treatments. The user is then asked to select a treatment alternative.

"The user may build or adjust an estimated forage increase graph in Pestman, which helps calculate the cost-benefit ratio and net present value of the selected treatment or treatments over a maximum 20-year planning horizon," Naylor says.

The user then adds improvement profiles, including any desired maintenance treatments. Finally, the user enters their enterprise budget with specific information regarding their grazing enterprise.

Pestman uses forage response curves "in combination with user-specific enterprise data and treatment scenarios to calculate an economic summary, including net present value and internal rate of return on the selected investment scenario compared to no treatment," Naylor says. "These data can be downloaded and compared to other scenarios."

Conner, who was involved with both the original and updated version, adds, "This is the first opportunity that landowners have had to go online and actually identify that particular plant, and it allows them to access in a user-friendly manner and get up-to-date herbicide recommendations.

"It's much more user-friendly and much more readily available than having to go somewhere like the local Extension or NRCS offices, but still gives them support in deciding on which chemical or mechanical practice is best, and also allows them to look at the economic impact that will most likely result from that decision."

Hamilton says his No. 1 piece of advice is, without a doubt, to use the Pestman help website, found at cnrit.tamu.edu/pestman_help.

"We've got what I think is an outstanding help component within Pestman," he says. "It is very user-friendly and you can [resolve many] questions by going through it. There are even videos where you can actually see the program in use."

Naylor, who created the video tutorials, says they are split into chapters, and feature step-by-step instructions with a combination of screen captures and a narrative voiceover going through an example scenario.

"These videos take the user through Pestman from the support system all the way through the economic analysis," he says. "[The improved help section] has probably been one of the most important updates to the program because it really helps people to use the decision support system better and get the most out of it."

Successful already … and growing

Hamilton says thanks to presentations made to producer groups at co-ops and events like the Beef Cattle Short Course, they've had a lot of exposure and interest in Pestman.

Naylor tracks the number of Pestman users each week. At press time, that number was approximately 100 per week and 400 per month — and steadily growing. The number of repeat users is also growing, he adds.

He says they saw a substantial increase in users following the final training for state NRCS range specialists in July 2010.

"They've picked it up for use — at least in Texas — and are using it in the NRCS offices, which helps it grow," he says.

Hamilton adds that a specialist can be invaluable help to a producer using the program.

"There are some questions that the landowner may not have the answers to, and we encourage them to contact their NRCS or Extension agent," he says. "In fact, we provide a list of agents' contact information right there on the site." •

 

Having this information ready will help you make the most of your time on Pestman:

  • Common name of the problem plant
  • Its average stem diameter on the property
  • For woody plants, the plant density
  • For weeds, the percent cover
  • State and county of the property

To view the customized economic analysis, you'll also need:

  • Percent change of forage mass from original pre-treatment amount
  • Timing and life of treatments over a planning horizon including resultant percent changes in forage mass
  • The grazing lease value of the property
  • Its pre-treatment carrying capacity
  • Size of area to be treated
  • Animal unit equivalent per head
  • Cost-share percentage, if available.
  • Discount rate, or the likely interest rate on borrowed money

Did you know?

Pests like brush and weeds affect an estimated 76 percent or 728 million acres of land area in the western portion of the U.S.From the Pestman website


"Pestman Offers Online Help" is from the February 2011 issue of The Cattleman magazine.