Northern Utah ranchers already dealing with low water supply are now facing a larger than normal infestation of a black grass bug that kills grass needed for cattle to graze.
The grass bug, measuring about 4 mm long or less than an inch, dries out grass by siphoning out chlorophyll.
Clint Hill, a local soil conservation district manager, said the bug appears on grass in Box Elder County every year, but because the warm winter never brought a hard freeze, the bug is flourishing. Hill said the infestation is the worst he's ever seen.
"There are hundreds of bugs per plant," Hill told The Deseret News.
Farmers usually combat the bug with chemicals, field burning or overgrazing, but none of those tactics have cut the infestation this year, said Lyle Holmgren, a county extension agent for Utah State University.
"We may have to start looking at a different way to fight them," Holmgren said. "It might be using insects to control insects or it might be burning the fields in the fall to burn the eggs off and then get rid of them that way."
As part of their annual cycle, the bugs will start to die off in about a month, but it will be too late for farmers and ranchers.
Tim Douglas, who owns a ranch in Howell with 140 cattle, said it's too expensive to feed cows hay all year round, so in the summer, ranchers rely on grass for their cows to graze on.
"If we don't continue to stay on top of this, over time it's wiping out all our native species of grass for our livestock," Douglas said.
If there isn't enough grass, he said, ranchers will be forced to purchase more hay or start selling cows.
And if ranchers keep their cows, the added cost of feeding the animals will be passed on.
"Eventually, it's going to go to the grocery store," Hill said. "The hamburgers, the steaks, the roast, lamb and other animals that use grass to produce protein are going to go up in cost."
Ranchers and farmers said if something isn't done to address the problem this year or next winter is equally mild, they'll be facing the same problem in 2016.