Grasshoppers are eating grass and other forage grown for livestock in such proportions that some U.S. ranchers are selling cattle because they won't have feed for the animals this winter.
Mark Tubbs, who ranches in southwest South Dakota and inside the Wyoming border, plans to sell about a third of his cows this fall after putting up a sixth of the hay he usually does. He had been expecting a decent cutting -- until the grasshoppers started chomping.
"This year we had a good start but they just took it," said Tubbs, 57. "The grasshoppers have taken it down to the dirt. They've eaten everything but the cactus."
Much of Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have the worst infestations of grasshoppers this year, but large populations also have been found in North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It's just off the charts," said Bruce Helbig, state plant health director with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Pierre. In far southwest South Dakota, there are more than 60 grasshoppers per square yard.
Still, ranchers' hopper-instigated sell-offs are unlikely to increase consumer meat prices, said Adele Harty, Haakon County Extension educator. "In the past when we've had droughts we haven't seen that result," she said.
That's little comfort to David Kane, a rancher near Sheridan, Wyo., who said the grasshoppers on his ranch are the worst they've been in more than 20 years. Kane already sold off part of his herd because the pests ate his cows' food.
"They're devastating," Kane said. "They were so bad here on the ranch that we sprayed our meadows because the second-cutting of alfalfa wouldn't green up because they were eating it as fast as it was trying to grow."
Helbig said his agency has a program set up to protect forage in 17 western states. The federal government covers the cost of spraying federal land, pays 50 percent of the cost on state land and pays a third on private land, he said.
To cut ranchers' costs and stretch available dollars, researchers also are studying whether a method called alternate or skip swathing works as well as spraying an entire field, Helbig said. Skip swathing entails spraying every other 100-foot-wide strip by airplane. Grasshoppers move a lot and eventually will end up in one of the sprayed areas, he said.
Bruce Shambaugh, state plant health director with APHIS in Cheyenne, Wyo., said the grasshopper infestation is a natural cycle. The number of grasshoppers, like many other insects, ebb and flow based on moisture, drought and other factors, he said.
"It's a combination of several different things, of which I don't think anybody has got a firm handle on exactly what it is," Shambaugh said.
He also said the problem is expected to be worse next year -- more bad news for Tubbs, who said the infestation is just the latest challenge in a disheartening decade of drought.
"We've had one good year in the last 10 years, and that was in 2005," he said. "That's the problem we're having with the grasshoppers. It's just taking the will and the heart out of us."
Associated Press Writer Matt Joyce contributed to this story from Cheyenne, Wyo.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.