WACO, Texas (AP) — Some Central Texas farmers are starting this fall with a war against an intense pest outbreak.
The Waco Tribune-Herald reports over the weekend, the nonprofit World Hunger Relief Inc. farm in Elm Mott lost more than 2,500 lettuce plants at the hands, or mouths, of fall army worms. The caterpillars, less than 2 inches in size, crept into the greenhouse and gnawed down seedlings, while others ravaged eggplant leaves in the rows outside. The damage estimate was about $5,000.
"This, for me, is the worst that I've ever seen it," said Gala Gerber, garden manager of the farm, which sells produce at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market and to members of its community-supported agriculture co-op.
This summer's historic hot, dry conditions followed by a notably wet September produced the perfect conditions for the area's current infestation of fall army worms. The creatures love to forage on grass lawns and a variety of agricultural crops.
A third of Waco's annual total rainfall to date, 14.47 inches, fell during the month of September, but the area needs another 10 inches of rain to catch up to normal rainfall totals.
"Usually we have an outbreak when you have a rain after a dry period," McLennan County AgriLife Extension agent Shane McLellan said.
"They're rapidly moving across the fields. That's where they get the name of army worm, because it's kind of like a troop marching."
The small, striped caterpillars are not rare in this area, but the scale of the infestation is, McLellan said.
A normal fall army worm invasion is evident when two to three insects appear in a given square foot. Lately, farmers have reported seeing 10 to 15 caterpillars per square foot.
"The main threat right now is army worms," he said. "People want to plant oats for grazing but then it emerges and comes up 2 to 3 inches and they (army worms) eat it. . They prefer fresh new growth. That's their favorite."
McLellan encourages farmers and residents to spray pesticides to keep the pests at bay.
But that's not an option for organic farmers like those at the World Hunger Relief, so they're holding out on planting winter grains for now and studying alternatives such as diluted bleach.
"We have some oats that I'm trying to put out, you typically want to do those around the last rain in September, but one of the big pests that really like small grains is the army worm," livestock manager James Fairchild said. "Right now, just no two years have been the same. . Army worms weren't as bad last year. I'm trying to navigate the warm weather as it transitions to cool and the worms, just trying to make everything work."
This week's predicted cold front is not expected to be cold enough to keep the pests at bay.
"It looks like we'll be relatively cooler, at least compared to what we'll see (Tuesday), with lows in the mid-60s and highs in the mid-80s through the weekend and maybe into the early part of next week," said National Weather Service meteorologist Lamont Bain.
Based on extended weather predictions and the possibility of a high-pressure ridge developing to the east, this cold front may be the last Central Texas has for a while, Bain said.
"Typically that (ridge) doesn't allow for any sort of cold fronts to come back into our area," he said. "Temperatures will warm back up to normal values and climb just a few degrees above that. But hey, this is your week if you're really wanting that fall weather."
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Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, http://www.wacotrib.com