Armyworms marching to Missouri

Fast-eating insects can clean out a field in a day.
Sunday, May 20, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:42 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

NEVADA, Mo. — After coping with a severe spring freeze and days of torrential rain, farmers in parts of southern and western Missouri are confronting yet another enemy: armyworms.

No one can say yet if voracious caterpillars will cause destruction of grasses and wheat on the scale of infestations that hit Missouri in 2001 and, to a lesser extent, again in 2004.

But experts are counseling farmers against taking chances. As fields dry, they advise cutting fescue as soon as possible to beat the armyworms to the seed and to get better quality hay.

“We seldom get this done because of rain or being too busy in other fields, and get around to cutting fescue later,” said Pat Miller, UM Extension agronomist in Nevada.

Jay Chism, an Extension agronomist in the far southwestern town of Lamar, said fields should be checked late in the day or at night. Spraying is justified with an average of four half-grown or larger armyworms per square foot, he said.

Armyworms got their name because they seem to march across fields in large formations, leaving little in their aftermath. They can strip a field in a day.

“They eat everything, they’ll eat it right down to the ground,” said Lloyd Darter, an aerial crop duster whose service has been in demand this spring in southwest Missouri.

The costs of spraying have to be weighed against the loss of a hay crop.

Missouri’s worst infestation of the past decade occurred in 2001, causing millions of dollars of losses to farmers throughout the southern half of the state. Extension agents reported farmers losing as many as 200 acres in a weekend to armyworms.

A serious and more unusual infestation also struck in 2004, when armyworms ate their way across hayfields in parts of northern Missouri, where they are rarely found.

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