While New Mexico remains at the top of the list of states with the most severe drought conditions in the nation, recent rain showers have been a welcome relief to many areas, including water-thirsty southeastern New Mexico.

But as growers begin their fourth cutting of alfalfa in parts of the hay-rich region, a New Mexico State University research center entomologist is warning producers to be on the watch for what could be an outbreak of variegated cutworms in and around Eddy County, a concern prompted by a similar outbreak of cutworms three years ago that wiped out much of the alfalfa crop south of Carlsbad.

"I don't want to sound the alarm because early reports of cutworms may not develop into a major problem as it did a few years back. But we are getting reports of cutworms in some fields, and since the rains last week, conditions are similar to what they were when we had the major outbreak a few years back," said Dr. Jane Pierce, entomologist at the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center in Artesia.

Pierce has worked the southeast region of New Mexico over the last 17 years and says this is only the second time she has seen significant numbers of cutworms during the heat of summer.

"Generally this time of year the heat and low humidity takes care of the problem for us. But like the last and only time I am aware of a cutworm problem in July was when rains, humidity and cooler temperatures were providing an opportunity for eggs to hatch, and that could be the case again this year if those weather conditions were to continue," she warned.

Pierce says late last week nearly a dozen cutworms were collected per night in pheromone traps at the research center's farm and were reported in other fields as well.

"Now is the time to survey alfalfa fields. If caught early enough they can be treated, but if unattended they can quickly do a great deal of damage," she said.

NMSU extension agronomist Mark Marsalis agrees.

"If you are scouting your fields and are finding two to three larvae per square foot you have reached the threshold of justifying treatment versus potential losses," Marsalis warns. "It is estimated that a single larvae can cause about a 2 percent loss on an acre of good alfalfa, so when you hit that threshold it's time to begin treatment."

High quality alfalfa remains in demand in southeastern parts of the state where there are a large number of dairy operations. Prices still hover around $275 a ton in and around Eddy County, where cutworms have been discovered in recent days.

"So at two to three larvae per square foot, growers are looking at over $10 per acre impact, so damages can add up quickly if the problem is not treated," Marsalis added.

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Alfalfa is New Mexico's leading agricultural crop and is recognized far and wide for its high quality. It also is credited with fueling the state's respected dairy industry. In a USDA report (2007) New Mexico was ranked sixth in the nation for dairy product production, seventh in milk production, and eighth in cheese production. These rankings were driven by consistent and strong production of alfalfa crops. While the state is known for its successful onion and chili pepper crops, alfalfa remains at the top of the list most years in both production tonnage and revenue.

Marsalis says alfalfa is generally New Mexico's largest cash crop sharing the spotlight only with the state's highly successful pecan crop.

"Most years alfalfa remains king of New Mexico's crop production, but it does compete with commercial pecan operations in the southeastern region of the state," he said.