Cutworm buffet

I brew a cup of tea, slip into my clogs and go inspect my garden. Another limp bean, another dead spinach plant! A little digging with my finger reveals the culprit – a fat grey caterpillar, a cutworm – that squished between the hard soil and my wooden clogs reveals a greenish gooey mess that used to be my spinach plant. They must be running out of spinach – this morning one actually ate a weed.

I dug this smaller cutworm up from under the canola plant it chewed off last night. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

I dug this smaller cutworm up from under the canola plant it chewed off last night. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

My neighbours and the newspapers tell me farmers are struggling with the same problem. Cutworms are cutting into the profits of grain farmers.

I talked to Bill Chapman, development officer with Alberta Agriculture. “If you’ve got seagulls or crows in your fields you’ve got a problem,” he says. The birds might be enjoying a good feed of fat cutworms. But the birds aren’t eating enough to prevent some palpable economic damage. Farmers in our area have been spraying for a week and a half already and are still at it.

A representative of Agricore told me some farmers have 10-15 acre bare patches expanding on a daily basis, while others have negligible or no damage. Farmers need to check their fields closely – if they find 1-4 larvae in a foot of plant row, they are reaching the economic threshold for spraying. If the larvae are half inch or less in size, they still have a lot of eating to do. Larger ones are towards the end of their life cycle.

The increase in cutworms this year comes from an influx of moths from the USA that blew in last summer. One farmer told me those who practice no-till don’t have cutworms, but Chapman says that’s an old wives tale. It’s not your tillage system – it’s where the moths laid their eggs.

When the canola rows look like this spinach row, it's going to hurt the bottom line. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

When the canola rows look like this spinach row, it's going to hurt the bottom line. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Whenever I see those big fat cutworms I see the barrels of dried caterpillars on the Kitwe market in Zambia. Many Africans look forward to the caterpillar season. Some like them fried with onions and tomatoes, others like them as snacks just dried as they are. Maybe we should be collecting the things instead of spraying them! To be truthful, I’m glad I’ve been able to escape the thrill of having them on my plate. I prefer them squished between my clogs and the dirt.

The farmer renting our home quarter has a great crop of canola coming. It’s so thick a few cutworms might even be welcome. But now the plants are looking a little blue – for lack of moisture. It’s ironic to read the last Western Producer with pictures of floods everywhere and complain of drought here.

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