Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Western farmers fear swarms of grasshoppers

Federal officials expect more grasshoppers to hatch this summer than any year since 1985, and farmers are bracing for the havoc they could wreak on crops and pastureland. In 1985, "Hungry swarms caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage that year when they devoured corn, barley, alfalfa, beets—even fence posts and the paint off the sides of barns," Stephanie Simon of The Wall Street Journal reports. The dire predictions come after a federal survey of 17 states last fall found critically high numbers of adult grasshoppers in parts of Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Since each female lays thousands of eggs, "The population could be very, very high this year," Charles Brown, who manages grasshopper suppression for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Simon. One Wyoming farming reported a $30,000 loss in profit last summer from the grasshopper infestation, but says he's been warned that this year's swarm will be even worse. Grasshoppers ideally thrive in the West at densities of about eight mature insects per square yard, Simon reports, but last year hot spots reached as many as 15 per square yard and peak infestation areas can easily hit 60 per square yard!

"Wyoming has allocated $2.7 million for suppression efforts, including aerial spraying of the pesticide Dimilin, which is fatal to maturing grasshoppers," Simon writes, but the state's congressional delegation says that may not be enough and wants federal support. Brown says USDA is aware of the problem, but used up nearly all its $5.6 million grasshopper budget during the annual population count last fall and and has no money to spray swaths of federally-owned range and grassland. The best hope for farmers may be a late cold spell in May or June that could kill a large portion of the nymphs. (WSJ chart) (Read more)

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