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Rare winter cut worm invasion spoofs Pamelia dairy farmer

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Pamelia dairy farmer Joseph L. Fults detected a large cluster of worms squirming across the road at 7:30 a.m. Sunday outside the barn at his farm off County Route 16.

At first, he said, “we just saw them in the road and thought they looked a lot like army worms,” which invaded his farm last summer and devoured about 200 acres of hay crop.

It wasn’t another army worm invasion, he found out later to his relief, but winter cutworms that had emerged from the ground with the arrival of mild weather during the weekend. Field crops educator Michael E. Hunter of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, who inspected samples of the worm Monday at the farm, confirmed that its features matched the description of winter cutworm.

Mr. Hunter, who grew up on a dairy farm in Alexandria Bay and has been a field expert for 15 years, said he has never seen the worms here before. They first appeared in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1979, and the first full-grown caterpillar was found in 2005 in Idaho. It since has been detected in other Western and Midwestern states, Mr. Hunter said, but this is the first time it’s been identified in the north country.

Unlike the army worm, however, the cutworms pose minimal risk to crop fields because they feed only during the fall and winter, when crops aren’t growing. They pose a potential threat to winter wheat and barley and grass forages such as alfalfa. But “even with high numbers, the loss caused by these worms would be a lot less because it’s not going to affect crop yields,” Mr. Hunter said.

It’s likely that cutworms could be present at farms in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. Mr. Hunter said cutworms were found in Potsdam during the weekend by Peter M. Barney, a former agronomist at the Cooperative Extension office in St. Lawrence County.

While cutworms are similar in size to army worms — about 1.5 inches long as adults — they are a lighter shade of olive brown, and some have a reddish hue. Their body segments are marked by dark-colored dash marks. They can survive in sub-zero temperatures, while the army worm completes its life cycle during the summer. Winter cutworms pupate and form cocoons in the spring, emerging as moths with yellow and orange wings in July.

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