FALLON — On an abnormally cool summer morning at the Hjorth farm, grasshoppers seeking warmth form a thick stubble on the sunny face of a large barn.
“They covered two-thirds of it,” said Doug Hjorth, who farms winter wheat here with his father, Dennis. “They’re bad this year.”
The outer rows of Hjorth’s grain field have been stripped of leaves. The flower bed behind the house is lousy with tiny armored invaders. When summer’s hot breath stirs, grasshoppers erupt like popped corn from the Hjorth’s cut lawn.
“All of Southeast Montana has it bad this year,” said Shayne Galford, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. “I was out in Golden Valley County and they had a count of 64 (per square yard). That’s high.”
Any area with 15 or more grasshoppers per square yard is considered problematic by APHIS standards. Those numbers translate into more than 72,000 hoppers an acre, enough to challenge a cow for forage on Montana’s dry ranges where a single bovine might scour 5 acres to satisfy its daily diet of 30 pounds of grass. At 64 hoppers per square yard, the insects become a voracious force, easily striping 29 pounds of forage from a single acre.
For ranchers, bare acres lead to bought grass and profit losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Across 17 Western states, the USDA this year forecasted the worst grasshopper infestation in 25 years, with crop and range damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The forecast was based on an abnormally high number of adult grasshoppers laying eggs last fall in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota.
The infestation has been bad for farmers like Hjorth, who watches as grasshoppers chew through a wheat crop that had record-harvest potential.
In these parts, farmers say the grasshopper hatches seem to come in waves. Just when it seems like the final hatch of hoppers has evolved into swarming adulthood, yet another batch of baby grasshoppers, each smaller than a pencil eraser head, crawls from the soil.
However, the widespread infestation biologists feared this spring has been somewhat subdued.
Last fall’s freakishly low subzero temperatures might have done a lot to curb this year’s grasshopper population, said biologist Dave Branson, researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Sidney. The insects simply didn’t have enough time to lay eggs in Montana climes from Bozeman to Baker.
In Sidney, Branson and other USDA scientists study all aspects of grasshoppers’ lives year round. They also look for biological ways to exterminate them. Somewhere in the back rooms of the ARS laboratory, there are grasshoppers being consumed by mold or pestered with parasites. The lab has a thousand or so lettuce-fed grasshoppers living in inescapable observation areas.
Branson said the grasshoppers seem to be coming in waves this year because cold spring weather interrupted what would normally have been a steady hatch. Eggs underground need enough heat to hatch.
“But it is also important to realize that we have a lot of different species of grasshoppers that hatch at different times,” Branson said.
There are nearly 400 different kinds of grasshoppers in the West alone. Only 60 of those varieties are considered menacing. This summer, the U.S. government, as well as private farmers and ranchers, is spending millions of dollars on pesticide to keep the insects down.
West of Miles City, pilot Dave Hartman is diving low to dust a lush spring wheat crop with the grasshopper-killing chemical Dimlin. His target is a pivot field in which the crops are planted in circular rows and watered by an overhead sprinkler that passes through the round field like the minute hand on a giant clock.
To get the right coverage, Hartman must fly in circles, constantly banking his plane to the left. His hulking Weatherly 620 B aircraft is six parts World War II fighter plane, four parts Massey Ferguson tractor. Its inside wing is never more than 8 feet off the ground.
Hartman has more spray jobs than he has hours in the day.
“I’ve been taking calls on my cell phone while I’m flying,” Hartman said. “It’s crazy.”
The hot treatment this year is Dimlin, a sprayed chemical that gives grasshoppers a malformed, soft exoskeleton when they molt, something grasshoppers do in six stages as they reach adulthood.
Dimlin is preferable to other pesticides because it only affects insects with outer skeletons. Other treatments, like Malathion, kill a host of insects good and bad.
Not all farmers are sold on Dimlin, but at Barry Rakes’ Fallon farm, the chemical seems to have done the job. Rakes raises barley, beans and beats. A historically wet June has driven Rakes’ malt barley yield to more than 110 bushels and acre.
Hoppers were threatening that barley crop before Rakes and neighbors pooled their money to have several thousand acres sprayed at about $3.50 an acre. Now there are hoppers crawling across the ground in various stages of deformation. Some are missing legs. Some lack the skeletal structure to move at all.
“See?” Rakes said, taking his index finger and placing it gently on a grasshopper’s head. “They don’t normally let you touch them like that.”
The farmer’s face-splitting smile reveals no love lost between him and the hoppers.
Contact Tom Lutey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1288.