The livelihood provided by crops and pastures that survived the greatest drought in over thirty years is now being threatened by tiny invaders causing big problems for local farmers.
Significant amounts of rain have prompted the return of fall armyworms, all on an annual scourge to mow down all things green; and grass is a high-dollar commodity this year, with 83 percent of the state’s drought-blasted pastures and range rated "poor" or "very poor."
John Evans, 42, works 400 acres of land at the family-owned H&D Tucker Farms on the banks of the Arkansas River near Mayflower, and described the drought this year as "devastating" for the farm’s rice, soybean and bermuda grass crops.
"All of my life I heard about 1980 — you always hear the old guys talk about that drought," Evans said. "They say that drought was nothing compared to this years.’ We got a little rainfall and things got green, now we’re seeing armyworms everywhere. We were expecting it."
Evans said he first noticed the tell-tale signs of invasion several evenings ago, when he observed white moths coming up from the blades of grass on the ground. His family has been searching for armyworms ever since.
The moth’s eggs attach to the underside of blades of grass and can be difficult to see. When they hatch, Evans said, they are about the size of "pencil lead." The worms eventually grow to about 1.5" in length. They are most active in the morning and evening hours between July and autumn.
"The big thing is to look for the worms before they get too big to control," said Les Walz, Cleveland County extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. "Once they get up to 1.5 inches, they’ve done a lot of damage.
"It’s pretty bad," Walz said. "We’re seeing eight to 15 worms per square foot."
Evans said after a wave of armyworms come through, most people simply think their pastures have "dried up."
Infestation can also be detected by watching out for grass with a frosty appearance. According to the Cooperative Extension Service, tiny larvae feed on the underside of the blades, resulting in a windowpane on the grass that gives the field a silvery appearance.
Ideally, producers should catch the worms before they get bigger than a half-inch long. The larger the worm, the greater the amount of pesticide necessary to combat the infestation.
Evans’ family worked to combat the invaders on Wednesday evening with the help of a 90’ sprayer and pesticide. Evans said he plans to utilize a smaller sprayer attached to the back of the ATV in an attempt to wipe out any remaining pests the family may have missed.
Walz said the grass now growing "is going to be a highly sought-after commodity."
Armyworms can produce a new generation every 30 days.