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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What controls or preventive measures are there for cutworms?


Answer: Here is some information about cutworm and organic/ biorational control methods.

Cutworms wreak havoc during seedling and transplant establishment. Problem areas are usually found near field borders and in weedier areas. Serious losses are often associated with wet springs that have caused a delay in planting.

Cutworm species include the variegated cutworm, Peridroma saucia; black cutworm, Agrotis ipsilon; granulate cutworm, Feltia subterranea; army cutworm, Euxoa auxiliaries, and claybacked cutworm, Agrotis gladiaria. They are active at night, feeding and chewing through the stems of the seedlings. In the day they burrow underground or under clods to avoid detection. To inspect for cutworms, dig around the damaged areas during the day or come out at night with a flashlight to catch the culprits in the act.

Purdue University IPM web site
has close-up color pictures of each type of cut worm. This will give you an idea of the different species and help you correctly identify them. In controlling and preventing cutworm, it is only important to know whether or not the larvae over winter (see cultural control measures below) so that you know when to time cultural and control measures.

Most overwinter as larvae in "cells" in the soil, in crop residues, or in clumps of grass. Feeding begins in spring and continues to early summer when the larvae burrow more deeply into the soil to pupate. Adults emerge from the soil one to eight weeks later, or sometimes overwinter. Most species deposit eggs on stems or behind the leaf sheaths of grasses and weeds. Eggs hatch from two days to two weeks later.

In some crops, cutworms can be extremely damaging where transplants are planted through plastic. It has been reported that the increased heat radiating out at night, particularly around the bases of the plants, attracts the larvae to the plants. Once underneath the plastic, the larvae are very difficult to control.

Cutworms have many predators and parasites that can help control their numbers. Some of these parasites and predators can be purchased or harnessed naturally through planting or conserving habitat for them.

The potential for cutworm infestations is governed in large part by the following factors:
• planting time
• low-damp areas of the field that drain poorly,
• fall and early season weed growth, and
• the amount of surface residue.

Cultural Controls
Cutworms are a particular problem in crops that follow sods, pastures, or weedy fields in rotation. Because infestations often begin on weeds, cultivation and other weed-control programs implemented directly before planting time may increase cutworm feeding on seedling crops. Clean tillage to remove all weedy vegetation at least ten days prior to planting reduces the number of cutworm larvae. Control of weedy vegetation, at this same time, at field borders also reduces the number of invading larvae.

To control cutworms that overwinter as partially grown larvae (claybacked and variegated), land should be kept weed-free, particularly of broadleaf weeds, during the fall months to reduce egg-laying by cutworm moths. A small grain cover crop, such as oats that winter kill, may cut weed competition and is more in line with the principles of organic production. Crops planted on sod are prone to cutworm damage unless the land is plowed in early fall and kept weed-free for the rest of the season.

Biological Controls
Cutworm larvae have a number of natural enemies. Predators include several species of ground beetles. Parasitoids include tachinid flies and braconid wasps. Cutworms may also be attacked by fungi, bacteria, and nematodes. Understanding the biology of beneficial organisms is imperative in order to use them effectively as pest control agents. For example, insect parasitic nematodes like Steinerema carpocapsae or insect-infecting fungi like Beauveria bassiana require adequate humidity to be effective. Other predators include spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, and lacewing larvae. Birds also prey on cutworms, so do not assume that the birds in the field are causing the seedling damage. As with other pests discussed, farmscaping is a recommended means of increasing the numbers of beneficial predators and parasites that help to keep cutworms under control. An ATTRA publication that is a good starting point for biointensive IPM is Biointensive Integrated Pest Management.

Alternative Pesticides & Applications
Scout for the presence of cutworm larvae early in the season, and after destruction of adjacent habitats. Cutworms are best scouted at night, when they are most active, using a flashlight. Look for cut-off or damaged seedlings and dig around the base of the plant to locate the larvae.

Bait formulations, sometimes using bran or applying rolled oats with molasses, containing Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki have been known to effectively control cutworm species when applied to the soil. Sprayed formulations may have variable results with cutworms, as the worms may not ingest enough of the toxin for it to be effective. Nightime spraying of Bacillus thuringiensis has shown to be more effective.

Research on the parasitic nematode species, Steinernematidae carpocapsae, has shown it to be a very successful control agent for cutworms, but make sure that the soil is sufficiently moist to support nematode populations (see above). The publication titled Integrated Pest Management of Greenhouse Crops lists suppliers of beneficial organisms in its appendix section.

If natural pesticide applications are necessary, choose one that is least disruptive to the natural enemies. Early detection and application during the early developmental stages of the larvae (first and second instar) make these biorational pesticides more effective. For cutworm species that overwinter as larvae, this would happen in the early spring when the soil is warming. Pheromone traps will indicate when mating flights are occurring, and through degree-day calculations one can estimate egg laying and hatching. For information on degree-day calculations contact your local Extension agent. If you are truly sure that you have the black cutworm then you will want to time the Pheromone traps in the early spring to monitor when they migrate to your region. It is at this time you will be able to determine when they are in the 1st and second instar stages for most effective control with Bt and nematodes. Work with your local extension agent to determine the degree day calculations for cutworm in your area. Below under resources there is a link to places to purchase pheromone traps.


Anon. Purdue University IPM Guide. Cutworm: Multiple Species. 2006

Sources of Pheromone Traps:
• Great Lakes IPM:
10220 Church Road NE
Vestaburg MI 48891
phone (517) 268-5693 or (517) 268-5911
fax (517) 268-5311

• Gempler’s:
P.O. Box 270
Belleville WI 53508
phone 800-382-8473
fax 800-551-1128

Kuepper, George. Organic Field Corn Production. ATTRA Publication # CT113. January 2002.

Bessin, Ricardo. Cutworm Management in Corn. Publication # ENT-59. University of Kentucky Extension.

Advisory Service. September 2002.

Flint, Mary Louise. 1990. Pests of the Garden and Small Farm. University of California, Oakland, CA. 276 p

Buhler, W.G. and T.J. Gibb. 1994. Persistence of Steinernema carpocapsae and S. glaseri (Rhabditida: Steinernematidae) as measured by their control of black cutworm (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) larvae in bentgrass. Journal of Economic Entomology. Vol. 87, No. 3. p. 638-642.

Ellis, Barbara W. and Fern Marshall Bradley. 1992. The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA. 534 p.



Permalink What breeds of cattle are good for raising grass-fed beef in Montana?


Answer: Part of the idea of sustainable agriculture is matching the right animal or plant with the appropriate environment. Ecological farmers know that organisms that are adapted to their climate and habitat do much better than those placed into situations nature might not have intended. Selecting the right genetics for pasture-based production is therefore of utmost importance.

In general, you will want an animal that combines maternal traits like milking ability with early maturity and tenderness. These three traits are important because cows must calve on pasture, raise a thrifty calf that lays down fat quickly (which is important in pasture systems because growing seasons are limited), and produces a carcass that yields high quality beef that provides a positive eating experience for the customer. For this reason the moderate body-typed English breeds usually fit best with grass operations. They are also well adapted to Montana's harsh winters. Breeds in this category include Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, and other, rarer breeds such as Devon and Dexter.

Select animals from herds that have mature weights under 1100 pounds, as these will most likely finish at the proper time. Grass-finished cattle are usually marketed between 16 and 24 months of age. Information on rare breeds can be found at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website at For more information on livestock breeds see the Oklahoma State University Animal Science website at

In addition, some ATTRA publications may be of interest in this endeavor:
Alternative Beef Marketing
Sustainable Beef Production
Additional titles on Grass Farming



Permalink How do you suggest controlling aphids in organic broccoli?


Answer: The new ATTRA publication Cole Crops and Other Brassicas: Organic Production contains a section on Organic Integrated Pest Management that may be helpful to you, since it addresses aphids. Here are some additional considerations:

Cultural Control
Encourage natural enemies by diversifying the habitat and their food sources, and refraining from use of broad-spectrum pesticides. The primary parasite of cabbage aphids in the Northeast is a very small, black wasp, Diaeretiella rapae, which lays its eggs inside the aphid. The parasite larva feeds inside the aphid, turning it a bronze color and killing it. It may take 2-3 weeks from the time the parasite lays its eggs inside the aphid until an adult parasite emerges from the dead aphid. Generally, there is a lag period between the outbreak of aphids and control by the parasite, so some other control should be used, but one that does not harm the parasite. A diversified cropping system with several potential aphid hosts can allow D. rapae to maintain itself in an area during periods of low levels of aphid abundance on one crop. Many other insects, such as ladybird beetles and Aphidoletes aphidimyza, can also be effective biological control agents against aphids. (See Biological Control: A Guide to Natural Enemies in North America, from Cornell University.)

Materials Approved for Organic Production

1. Soap: Scout brassica plantings once or twice a week, especially in the fall, and apply insecticidal soap sprays if aphids are found. Do not wait until aphids reach high numbers and dense colonies; apply when numbers are low. Repeat applications two or three times and ensure coverage of the parts of the plant where aphids live, including undersides of leaves and in the buds, shoots or heads of Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, etc. In recent studies, soaps have been ineffective against green peach aphid. Other studies we examined indicated 5 good, 1 fair, and 2 poor results against other aphid species.
2. Rotenone is recommended in the older literature (currently, no rotenone products are on the OMRI approved list).
3. Neem products can provide some control. Based on a limited number of studies, neem products gave good control of turnip aphid (2 studies); fair (4) to poor (3) control of green peach aphid; and mostly good control of other aphids (2 good, 2 fair, 1 poor). There are several different types of neem products.
4. Summer oils (2 fair and 3 poor results) will provide some control.
5. Kaolin clay will reduce aphid populations but will leave a white residue that may affect marketability.



Permalink What can I use to control slugs?


Answer: Slugs are one of the more common and serious pests in the vegetable garden. These soft-bodied insects are mollusks and feed on decaying plant debris and on a number of vegetable, flower, fruit and herb species. Although slugs have a range of favorite foods, including cabbage, cereals, lettuce, green vegetables, strawberries and root vegetables, slugs will attack any and all seedlings, even if the mature plant is unpalatable. (1) Crop damage from slugs is greatest at the seedling stage.

Lacking a protective shell cover, slugs prefer to stay out of the sun hiding under rocks and boards, mulch, compost piles and other garden debris during the day. They forage only at night and on wet, sunless days, and are easy to identify by the telltale trails of silvery, sticky mucus they secrete to smooth their path. In most cases, it is temperature, not light, that will most influence slug feeding.

Compared to snails, slugs spend more time on the ground or in the soil. Lacking a shell, they require more contact with moist environments to avoid desiccation. Conditions that favor slug development include the following (2):
• No-till practices that provide crop residue on the soil surface for slug habitat
• Dense weed cover, or addition of organic matter such as livestock manure
• Mild winter temperatures that enhance overwintering success
• A prolonged period of relatively cool temperatures (63-68° F) combined with evenly distributed rainfall that maintains wet soil moisture conditions
• Either heavy-textured soils or coarse-textured soils, neutral to high pH, and excessive nitrogen levels.

Accompanying this letter are lists of articles that describe the biology and control of this mollusk. Not all slugs are pests. Native species like the banana slug recycle nutrients, produce humus and build soil. Other insects and birds prey on them for food. Species that attack garden or field crops are those that were inadvertently introduced from Europe—like the gray garden slug (Deroceras laeve), the spotted garden slug (Limax maximus), the tawny garden slug (Limax flavus) and the European black slug (Arion ater ater).

Slug biology and habits must be understood in order to implement an effective management program. Correct identification and regular monitoring are necessary to assess the severity of the infestation and determine what kind of controls to most appropriately implement. The trick is to find weak points in the slug life cycle at which management measures can be most effectively applied. For example, baiting is most effective when the slugs emerge to mate and lay eggs (see the article Stopping Slugs and Snails by Joel Grossman).

Management measures for slugs generally fall into two general categories: proactive and reactive. (Biological controls may be either proactive or reactive, depending on the context of their implementation). Proactive, or preventative measures are various cultural controls that can be taken prior to an outbreak of slugs in order to decrease the chances of an economic infestation developing. These are often manipulations of the farm ecology that somehow increase the environmental pressure against an organism. A program that integrates preventative and reactive measures will be the most likely avenue to successful slug management.


Recent research in Switzerland (3) found that slug damage to lettuce plots that were watered in the morning was significantly less than slug damage to plots that were watered in the evening. Evening watering creates a very slug-friendly environment. Drip irrigation may be of some benefit (compared to overhead irrigation), since its use will decrease the general moisture of the crop environment.

Rototilling the ground during warm weather in early spring will reduce slug populations through physical destruction and exposure of slugs and slug eggs to predators and the weather. Three passes of a rototiller in an area may decrease slug population by 75%. (4) The downside is that the cultivation will expose the organic matter of the soil to an increased rate of oxidation.

Biological Control

A posting on the Gardening in Harmony website message board noted that:

Rhode Island Red hens are great slug hunters, they eat virtually all the slugs they can find. Other chickens don't seem to care for slugs very much. My number one vote is for ducks! They devour slugs like mad. I have heard it said that they will eat half their body weight in slugs a day. Here is a quote that says it all: "You don't have a slug excess, you've got a duck deficit!"—Bill Mollison, Permaculture expert. I have several friends with organic farms who put their ducks on slug patrol with great success! (5).

Khaki Campbell or Indian Runner duck varieties are especially good snail and slug hunters.(6) A word of caution about ducks and chickens. Ducks are browsers and may eat the salad plants, particularly if they are young. Chickens may take a few bites out of the foliage as well. Of greater concern may be the presence of duck or chicken feces contaminating the lettuce leaves. One option is to use these animals to control slugs (and snails) after harvest. It may be worthwhile to experiment with ducks or chickens on a small scale to observe the practicality of integrating them into your farming system as slug controls.

Other biocontrols include various species of ground beetles in the genus Scaphinotus and other genera. These beetles are not available commercially and must be conserved through habitat manipulation. However, the habitat that favors Scaphinotus spp., such as mulch, may also favor slugs.

Snail eating ground beetle
Scaphinotus unicolor

Some research has been done using parasitic nematode, Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita, as an applied biocontrol for slugs. Field research in 2004 reported that slug damage on Chinese cabbage was reduced by about one-third by the nematode treatment. (7) Sources for these nematodes are provided at the end of this letter. The same research (7) found that slug damage was significantly (c. two times) greater after red clover or vetch than after ryegrass. Damage on plots without cover crop was intermediate and not significantly different from either extreme.

Harvestmen (Opiliones) prey on slugs. The sciomyzid flies, Tetanocera plebeia Loew and Tetanocera valida Loew prey on brown slugs. (8) Other general predators include birds (up to 6 percent of the diet of starlings), moles, toads, shrews, rove beetles and firefly beetles. (9)

Treatment: Barriers and Baits

Reactive measures generally take the form of some kind of treatment. A variety of baits, traps and barriers have been tried with varying degrees of success. Barriers reported to be effective against slugs and snails include sand, diatomaceous earth, ashes, crushed eggshells and others. (10) Rain or moisture will decrease the effectiveness of many of these. Another technique, supposedly very effective, is to surround the plant, bed or garden with a 6" wide copper foil barrier. The mollusks get a mild shock when they encounter the metal and stay away. Wooden surfaces treated with copper sulfate also act as a slug barrier. (9) Copper sulfate is toxic to slugs as are inorganic salts of aluminum and iron. There have been some observations that aluminum sulfate, which is commonly used as a soil acidifier, repels slugs well at the rate of 5-10 lbs per 1000 square feet. However, noting that the compound is inactivated very quickly when in contact with wet soil, researchers speculate that its effectiveness could be enhanced by application to inert materials like plastics that surround the plants. (11) Another method of protecting barriers consisting of aluminum and iron ions is to combine (chelate) these ions with an organic compound to protect against environmental degradation and inactivation. (1)

Other options include use of pennyroyal as a slug barrier or perhaps a mulch. Pennyroyal and some other mint oils contain pulegone, a toxic monoterpenoid that acts as a feeding deterrent. (12) Sources of mint oils are provided below.

Research in Great Britain in 2003 investigated the repellent and irritant effects of cinnamamide, copper ammonium carbonate, a mulch, a horticultural ground-cover matting impregnated with a copper formulation and urea/formaldehyde. In the no-choice experiments the products had a stronger irritant effect on the snails than on the slugs. All products tested except the mulch significantly reduced the locomotor activity of both the slugs and snails. The most effective product, cinnamamide, reduced snail locomotor activity by 94% and track length by 96%. The overall repellent effect of the treatments in the choice experiments was stronger in the slugs; where presence, locomotor activity and track length in the treated area were significantly reduced by all products. The avoidance of treated areas exceeded 95% with the mulch (for slugs) and with copper ammonium carbonate (for snails). (13) An earlier study in 2002 lab-tested 4 materials, metaldehyde, methiocarb, cinnamamide and 3,5-dimethoxycinnamic acid (DMCA), as a seed treatment on oilseed rape against slug damage. The researchers found that all doses of cinnamamide and DMCA were phytotoxic to the young plants, and that all compounds reduced slug damage, but metaldehyde and methiocarb consistently performed better than cinnamamide and DMCA. (14)

Beer baits are often recommended but must be closely spaced in order to be effective. The slugs are attracted to the yeast products, not to the alcohol or hops. Recommended spacing is one bait per 10 sq. feet. To create your own slug bait, add 1Tb of granulated yeast in three cups of water and 2 Tb of sugar. Put it in a pan with the edge at least ½" above soil surface to keep beneficial insects from inadvertently falling in.

Baits made with iron phosphate (i.e., Sluggo and Escar-Go) are an environmentally friendly way to manage snails and slugs. The allowed use of this material in organic production systems remains undecided at this time, so it is important to discuss this material with your certifying agency prior to use. Organic standards does not allow use of synthetic forms of iron phosphate, which may leave the door open for the use of mined iron phosphate. However, "inert ingredients" make up 99% of the formulation of these products, and it may be that the composition of the inerts must be determined and pronounced "allowable" before these products are declared allowable for use in organic production systems.

In summary, the slug has several weak links in its life cycle that can be exploited to manage slug populations. It seeks moist environments, so actions to reduce moisture, particularly during the night, will provide some relief from this pest. Morning (vs. evening) irrigation, use of drip irrigation, and use of raised beds all may help reduce slug populations. The penchant of slugs to seek protected environments might be taken advantage of by providing such environments in order to trap them. For example, long sheets of plastic laid in between rows might be an attractive shelter in which slugs will congregate come daylight. The plastic sheets could be collected during the day and the slugs harvested.

Weaving the options available to you for slug control into an integrated pest management program that fits your operation requires creativity, flexibility and a willingness to experiment, observe the results and experiment again.


1) Quarles, William. 1997. Slugs and snails in gardens and fields. Common Sense Pest Control. Winter. p. 5-15.

2) Van Dyke, J. 1998. Slime trails in the moonlight. Iowa State Dept. of Entomology Website.

3) Speiser, B., and M. Hochstrasser. 1998. Slug damage in relation to watering regime. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. Vol. 70. No. 2-3. p. 273-275.

4) Symondson, B. 1990. Slug control. Webpage at

5) Michaels, F. 2001. Organic slug and snail control.

6) Judi. 1999. Posting on Gardening in Harmony message board.

7) Vernavá, M.N., Phillips-Aalten P.M., Hughes L.A., Rowcliffe, H., Wiltshire C.W., and D.M. Glen. 2004.Influences of preceding cover crops on slug damage and biological control using Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita. Annals of Applied Biology, December 2004, vol. 145, no. 3, pp. 279-284(6)

8) University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Mid-Florida Research and Education Center (MREC) Webpage. Derocerus slugs.

9) University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Mid-Florida Research and Education Center (MREC) Webpage. Introduction to Slugs and Snails.

10) Organic Gardening (eds.) 1997. 18 nifty ways to negate slugs and snails. Organic Gardening. May-June. p. 46-48.

11) Anon. 1990. Iron and aluminum molluscicides. Hortideas. September. p. 102.

12) Quarles, W. 2000. Mints and pest control. Common Sense Pest Control. Vol 16. No. 2. Spring. p. 17-19.

13) Schuder, I., et al. 2004. The Behavioural Response of Slugs and Snails to Novel Molluscicides, Irritants and Repellents," Pest Mgmt. Sci., 60(12), 1171-1177, December 2004.

14) Simms L.C.1; Mullins C.E.1; Wilson M.J. 2002. Seed dressings to control slug damage in oilseed rape. Pest Management Science, July 2002, vol. 58, no. 7, pp. 687-694(8)

Suggested Reading:

Grossman, Joel. 1991. Stopping slugs and snails. Fine Gardening. November-December. p. 56-59.

Organic Gardening (eds.) 1997. 18 nifty ways to negate slugs and snails. Organic Gardening. May-June. p. 46-48.

Quarles, William. 1997. Slugs and snails in gardens and fields. Common Sense Pest Control. Winter. p. 5-15.

Suggested Further Reading:

Long, Becky. 1996. Coping with slugs and snails. Journal of Pesticide Reform. Spring. p. 22-23.

Lynas, Bryam D.T. 1992. More on iron sulfate as a molluscicide. Excerpt from a report. Hortideas. April. p. 43.

McLeod, Edwin J. No date. Snail and Slug Biology and Management: A Review. Organic Agriculture Research Institute. 6 p.

Verbena, Melissa and Jean Yates. 1991. Success secrets of super slug slayers. Organic Gardening. April. p. 44, 46-48.

Sources for slug control products
Barriers and exclusion devices:

PO Box 4247 CRB
Tucson, AZ 85738
800-827-2847 or 520-825-9785

Gardens Alive
5100 Schenley Place
Lawrenceburg, IN 47025

Premier Enterprises
2806 Oakhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034


2723 116th Avenue
Allegan, MI 49010

Nemaslug, a garden product containing the nematode Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita, is available from:

Andermatt Biocontrol
Unterdorf, 6146 Grossdietwil, Switzerland, 062-927-2840
Biobest N.V.
Ilse Velden, 18
2260 Westerlo, Belgium

English Woodlands
Hoyle Depot, Graffham, Petworth
West Sussex GU28 OLR, UK 01798-86754

Mint Oil Pesticides:

Woodstream Corporation
69 N. Locust St
Lititz, PA 17543
Fax: 717-626-1912



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