Farmers facing new threat to crops

Despite being present in North America for more than a century, fusarium head blight hasn’t been a concern for most Central Alberta farmers.

Despite being present in North America for more than a century, fusarium head blight hasn’t been a concern for most Central Alberta farmers.

That could change.

The disease, which affects small-grain cereals and corn, has been showing up in an increasing number of samples from this region, said Holly Gelech, manager of business development with BioVision Seed Labs of Edmonton.

“In 20 years it was extremely rare to find fusarium graminearum in Central Alberta,” she said, referring to the fungal pathogen that causes fusarium head blight.

“Now we are finding it and it is showing up in a number of samples.”

Kevin Zaychuk, business development manager with Nisku-based 20/20 Seed Labs Inc., added that the infection rate appeared to jump in 2012 .

“Definitely, we have a bit of a spike from last year.”

The stakes could be high for farmers.

Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development has assessed the potential cost of the disease to Alberta producers at $3 million to $49 million a year, based on comparable crop districts in Manitoba — where fusarium head blight is well-established. It’s anticipated that Central Alberta would be among the hardest-hit areas.

Kelly Turkington, a Lacombe-based research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said cumulative losses since a severe outbreak in Manitoba 20 years ago have been significant.

“If you were to look at the situation in Manitoba, or the situation in the States, they’re not talking millions of dollars of loss since the watershed year of ’93, they’re talking billions of dollars in loss.

“It is one of the main cereal disease issues that has affected small grain cereals in the last 20 years.”

What makes fusarium head blight so costly is the fact it reduces both the yield and the grade of the wheat, barley, oats and corn in infects, and also produces fungal toxins.

“Those have implications for both animal and human health,” said Turkington of those mycotoxins. “So that’s an added dimension to the head blight problem.”

Control can be difficult, he added.

“There’s no magic bullet, unfortunately.

“It’s a disease that’s very difficult to manage once it becomes established in an area.”

Luckily, most of Alberta is not at that point.

“The infection levels are quite low,” said Gelech, noting that only one or two seeds out of 200 were infected in the positive tests from Central Alberta.

“That is considered a very low infection, in comparison to Saskatchewan or Manitoba.”

Zaychuk added that the recent jump in fusarium head blight cases could reflect last year’s growing conditions: heavy precipitation that promoted the fungal disease’s growth and high winds that hastened its spread.

“We’ve seen years in the past where we’ve had a small spike like this too,” he said.

Prevention is the key, said Turkington, with farmers’ best strategy an “integrated approach.” That includes choosing seed that has a higher tolerance to fusarium graminearum, and having it tested and treated with fungicide.

Crop rotations should leave at least two years between susceptible plant species, he added, and producers are wise to remain aware of the fusarium head blight risk in their area.

The disease spreads via airborne spores, as well as on plant residue from affected crops, said Turkington. Since becoming a significant problem in Manitoba two decades ago, it’s gained a good foothold in Saskatchewan and even Southern Alberta.

“Eventually, we’re going to be picking up more and more trace levels of the organism in the eastern parts of Alberta and probably outside of Southern Alberta.”

BioVision already has evidence of this.

“We are seeing a higher incidence coming in from the east side of the province,” said Gelech. “So the pathogen is generally moving in from Saskatchewan.”

There’s no need to panic, said Turkington. A high level of fusarium head blight in Central Alberta would likely occur only if farmers were lax in their seed selection and rotation practices, and the weather was favourable for the disease over several growing seasons.

“You’re not all of a sudden going to have a Manitoba-style epidemic on your hands.”

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