Brent Rose and his family have worked the same land in the Park Valley area in northern Utah for six generations, and few times in that span has Mother Nature presented challenges as daunting as during the last couple of years.
The ongoing drought gripping the area has decimated yields of the hay they grow to feed their cattle. Like many of their neighbors, the Roses have no wells or canals to supply the water they need for their crops. They depend on snowmelt from the surrounding Raft River and Grouse Creek mountains to provide the water they need, and lately it just hasn’t been there in the quantities to which they’ve grown accustomed.
“We take it as it comes, and it hasn’t been coming very much,” said Rose, who estimated his hay crop so far this year is about 20 percent of average.
He said spring rains brought some relief and the land is in better shape than last year, but conditions are still well below average — and then the grasshoppers came.
Grasshoppers and Mormon crickets, which local farmers and ranchers have contended with since Mormon pioneers first settled the area, are just part of life. The crop-ravaging insects come in cycles, with hordes of grasshoppers reemerging in cycles every six to eight years and Mormon crickets about every 20 years, said Kristopher Watson, manager of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food’s insect program.
“We’ll see them all the time, but not at infestation levels regularly,” Watson said. “It falls off of producers’ radar for a number of years, then suddenly we’ll see them and it’s alarming when they start to appear in more and more numbers.”
When that happens, as has been the case especially with grasshoppers this year and last, many farmers and ranchers will call Watson’s office, which connects them with state-funded assistance to spray pesticide to control the bugs.
Under the assistance program started with funding from Congress around 15 years ago, Watson or someone from his office will conduct a site visit and survey and, if enough are found, will offer to cover the cost of the chemicals used to control the insects. Producers still foot the bill for the application side, which is typically done aerially from a plane.
He said the insects have been appearing this year in the usual historical hot spots, “and Box Elder County is one of those.
“Box Elder has put (the assistance program) to the best use so far this year,” he said, adding that between 50,000 and 100,000 acres in the county have been treated this season through the state program.
Since grasshoppers and Mormon crickets are native to the area, Watson said the goal is to control, not eradicate them. The best time to spray is early in the season, before the bugs mature enough to develop their notoriously voracious appetite for crops.
“You want to get them before they lay eggs, then ideally we’re not seeing the populations in following years,” he said. “If you kill them now, maybe there’s some instant gratification, but you should anticipate and plan to have infestations in following years as well.”
Drought can exacerbate the problem because the insects are drawn to cropland where there is more moisture compared with the surrounding rangeland, he said.
Because the insects don’t recognize property lines, Watson said the best approach is for producers in a given area to work together in their control efforts.
“Ideally, people are working together as a community over a large infested area,” he said.
Rose said local producers have cooperated in the past to battle the pests, but aren’t as motivated when drought means their yields aren’t very good to begin with — in other words, there’s simply not as much to fight for.
“If we’re having a tremendous year, we can come together in this valley and we’ve done it before,” he said. “The hoppers add insult to injury, but we can’t really blame it on the hoppers this time. It’s the water.”
Box Elder County producers are eligible for federal loan assistance due to drought disaster declarations in Utah and neighboring Idaho, but that doesn’t solve the more immediate and pressing problem of tight hay supplies.
When they can’t grow enough to feed their animals, ranchers like Rose are often forced to turn to the open market for hay — a painful choice to have to make right now as prices are at all-time highs.
Local, regional and even global demand for hay has driven the local cost for high-quality alfalfa as high as $350 per ton this summer — a previously unheard-of price point, said Mike Pace, Utah State University Extension director for Box Elder County.
“Everything has almost doubled in price, whether that’s a vehicle, a house, or hay,” Pace said. Some local hay producers are shipping their crops overseas to get the highest prices, “and then there’s nothing left for the (local) cattle guys.”
Even cheap feeder hay that has typically sold for around $80 a ton is now going for around $200 a ton, he said. High prices for petroleum-based inputs like fertilizer and diesel fuel are some of the driving factors behind the high prices.
“For growers, it’s good,” he added. “For buyers, it’s bad.”
As it becomes more expensive to feed livestock, some ranchers might be considering selling off their cattle, which are also fetching high market prices these days. With high-elevation summer pastures in the northern Utah mountains in relatively good shape this year, Pace said he hasn’t heard of any widespread plans to do that yet, “but once they bring (the livestock) back down in the fall time, out west where it’s dry here, that’s a question that’s gonna come up — do we keep them, or call heavy?”
Rose’s son represents the seventh generation to work the family’s land, and that long history has taught them that things tend to even out over time. For now at least, the Roses and many others are sticking it out, hoping the cycle of drought will be broken and the bumper crops of past years will return.
“Hopefully it all works out,” he said. “It keeps us humble, anyway.”