The West’s Insect Issue

The Western U.S. is facing a drought dilemma of biblical proportions: grasshopper plagues.

In large swaths of Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming, as well as some areas of Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and Nebraska, the native insects are appearing on the heels of a dry planting season. Grasshoppers and drought go together like PB&J, so the insects are having a hayday.

Not seen by some growers since the mid-1980s, grasshoppers attack rangeland and crop fields. They chew through tender plants, leaves, and grain heads, and are a competitor for livestock forage on public lands, where ranchers have no easy back up plans for the damaged food supply.

No small issue: Populations of 14 grasshoppers per square yard – totaling the weight of a sheep – become a problem. They can eat their bodyweight in forage each day, leading to a $900M impact from a typical infestation. This year, populations are reaching 50-60 grasshoppers per square yard.

Taking care of business: This week, the USDA began spraying diflubenzuron in hard-hit Montana to kill nymphs. Conservationists are concerned about impacts to other insects in the treated area. But officials say their skip-a-swath approach protects slower moving insects while targeting the far-traveling grasshoppers.

Where this goes: Without killing nymphs, the outbreak will peak in roughly two months when the 2-3 inch-long insects will be able to out-eat cattle. They’ll die out when they run out of forage – and likely after they’ve laid next year’s eggs.

Drought Projections Depressing 2021 Vibes

Drought trigger warning. 2021 precip conditions are looking parched for the southwestern U.S.

Early January’s drought index, with 46%-ish of the U.S. experiencing moderate drought or worse, is raising concern for what’s to come. Looking at you, La Niña.

Refresher: A few degrees difference can be disturbing. In a La Niñyear, fierce winds over the Pacific Ocean push warm water west. Cold water rises to the surface. The eastern Pacific Ocean becomes a hair colder than normal. And we end up with a drier southwestern U.S. and a wet Australia and Indonesia.

USDA Meteorologist Brad Rippey says La Niña dryness should last through the spring of 2021 and possibly longer. “Multi-year La Niña episodes have occurred several times, including 2010-12 and 1998-2001.”

Wut. 2010-12 drought conditions? Pause. Breathe. We aren’t there yet. But if La Niña keeps being as grosera (Spanish word of the day: rude) as forecasted, states like CA, NM, AZ, TX, and FL could be on that track. Plus, crispy conditions can equal wildfire risk. And Cali’s snowpack was only 52% of its average as of Jan. 1.

Zoom out: Despite the leery forecast, CoBank set a positive tone for the second half of 2021 in their quarterly report. Optimism was tied to the steady rise of corn, soybean, and wheat prices in 2020’s fourth quarter and hope of a rebounding foodservice sector.

But cattle folks cringe. Drought conditions and slightly tightened supplies of these crops have feed costs estimated to climb 29% during 2021.