Winter cereals gain in popularity as durum production grinds to a halt in areas once considered safe from fusarium head blight
Fields that once grew profitable durum no longer do so because of fusarium, leaving some to speculate that prairie durum may go the way of the dodo bird and the dinosaur.
Plant breeding and fungicide application can do only so much in the war on fusarium. As a result, strategic rotation has become an increasingly valuable tool in keeping fields profitable without spring seeded cereals.
Many fields in traditional durum areas now grow fall-seeded crops that flower before fusarium spores take to the winds, including winter wheat, conventional open pollinated fall rye and the new hybrid fall rye varieties.
One Brasetto rye grower south of Regina reported an average 120 bushels per acre in the first week of August. Typical pricing at the time was about $4.10 per bu., but that crop brought $4.90.
Total prairie durum acres increased 4.8 percent this year to 6.1 million acres, but the crop is all but a memory in Manitoba, where it was once a staple.
Saskatchewan remained flat at five million as acreage shifted west.
Alberta farmers planted 34 percent more, matching their 2002 record acreage of 1.1 million.
Paul Thoroughgood farms near Moose Jaw, Sask., an area known for durum, and has worked as an agronomist on the Ducks Unlimited winter wheat program for 17 years.
He grew winter wheat on his own farm over those years and has also grown a lot of durum.
“But I quit durum last year. I was tired of growing (No.) 4 and 5 durum. Over the past five years, winter wheat profit has just blown away durum,” he said.
“If you don’t grow a 1 or a 2, there’s no point growing durum. You’re just not in the money. Regardless of following best management practices, your durum is going to get hit with fusarium.”
He has a half dozen neighbours who now have winter wheat in their rotations as a fusarium avoidance strategy.
Others are switching durum acres to spring wheat varieties that are more resistant to fusarium.
“A lot of people around here are really frustrated. They’re walking their durum fields and they’re seeing a lot of fusarium, despite using high water volumes with the fungicide and spraying right on time. Lots of people are looking for an alternative,” he said.
“Durum may not become obsolete. That may be a little strong. But I’ve always felt that durum is not a commodity crop. It’s a niche crop, if you can grow 1 or 2. There’s nothing good you can say about a 4 or 5 durum.”
Doug Martin, chair of Winter Cereals Manitoba, is well versed when it comes to fall-seeded crops. He said he doesn’t even attempt to grow durum on his farm northeast of Winnipeg.
“We’re in a high moisture area here. We already had fusarium head blight back in the middle ’80s when I started farming,” he said.
“But I do grow a lot of winter wheat. There are so many benefits, probably the biggest this year is the way it handles excess moisture. It’s more advanced than other crops, so it can use up all the rain we’ve had. We’ve had seven major rain events on our farm this year.
“We had one field (week of Aug. 8) that went 94 bushels. That was at 16 percent moisture. Pretty good for a wet year. And no disease.”
Mark Akins, who farms near Rouleau, Sask., worked as an agronomist on the Ducks Unlimited winter wheat program before farming full time.
Akins, who was harvesting 900 acres of winter wheat and 1,100 acres of durum last week, said the ratio of winter wheat on his farm is constantly increasing because of fusarium in his spring wheat.
“We had bad fusarium in the durum in 2014 and actually, this year, I think it’s going to be worse, a lot of fusarium in our durum,” he said.
“At times it’s been up to 30 percent of our crop. I can’t see things continuing that way. It’s just has to change.”
Akins said he’s grown winter wheat every year for the past 15 years, although he’s had issues with seeding at the recommended time, often putting it in too late.
“I think we’re going to continue growing at least this many acres, maybe more. The yields have been good this year. I have some soft white winter and some hard red winter. The fusarium levels are low on all of it,” he said.
“As far as I know, winter wheat is highly susceptible to fusarium, just like durum, but it’s a timing factor. Flowering happens so much earlier that we just don’t have the fusarium problem.
“Just as insurance, we always do an early heading leaf disease fungicide application. It’s a little later than the flag leaf but earlier than what you would normally do for fusarium timing. And of course we always do a seed treatment.”
Akins speculated that fusarium could adapt to early flowering crops that have been seeded in the fall.
“I don’t know whether that will happen, but Mother Nature’s like that, isn’t she? She’s very adaptable,” he said.
“It’s not out of the question. That’s why we need continuous ongoing genetic improvements.”
Mother Nature will be in for a surprise if she does try to pull that stunt. Two years ago, the new variety Emerson was the first winter wheat to achieve the R rating, meaning it’s resistant to fusarium.
Early seeding is important to ensure that plants get an early jump in the spring as soon as temperatures warm up. There’s an excellent chance of beating the disease if the crop can get through the early growth stages while night time temperatures remain below 10 C.
“It’s very important that winter wheat is part of our plan going forward,” Akins said.
“I can’t see us doing any more durum than we’re doing now. There’s always a hope that we’ll get fusarium resistant durum, but I can’t wait that long.”
Winter Cereals Canada chair Dale Hicks, who farms near Outlook, Sask., grew no durum this year.
“Fusarium is here to stay. The intensity will increase or decrease from year to year, depending on moisture and the timing of moisture, but we’re going to have fusarium forever,” he said.
“I followed fusarium west from the Red River Valley back when I was a young guy working for Cargill. I remember when we got the memo saying a car of durum at Winkler, (Man.) had been rejected because of a few kernels of scab. That was 1989.
“They brought a plant pathologist up from North Dakota State University, and he explained what fusarium was. He told us it would spread across all of North America. It’s just a matter of time, 20 years or 40 years.”
Manitoba’s winter wheat crop had a brush with fusarium in 2014, and Hicks said that might happen in a fall seeded crop only once every 10 or 20 years. In durum, it’s going to happen almost every year, and not only in wet years.
“Even if the good old dry years return, we’ll still have fusarium in durum,” he said.
“Last year, we had land that got only 3/10 inch of rain from spring seeding to July 20, and we still had fusarium in the durum. Only 1.5 percent, but it was there. It’s definitely here to stay.”
Jeff Askin, a seed grower from Portage la Prairie, Man., and a director with Winter Cereals Manitoba, said farmers in his area seem to be switching to high yielding feed wheat.
“Faller is pretty common around here, and Prosper. I’m trying to get Penhold going here, and I’m selling some of that now, too. These varieties out-yield the spring wheats,” he said. “But it seems a lot of guys don’t want to be bothered seeding when they’re busy combining. I know my sales have been down on the winter wheats, and the feed wheats (spring-seeded) have been up. They can be affected by the fusarium, but not as badly as the durum.”
Askin said growers have worried about winter wheat wrecks in the past five years, and they haven’t yet returned to the crop. Winter wheat averaged 88 bu. on his farm this year.
Jake Kirschenman, who runs a mixed farm in a traditional durum area near Medicine Hat, Alta., grows a lot of fall rye because it has a good fit with his 3,000 head feedlot. This was his first year growing Brasetto, but it was hit with a 100 percent hail claim, so he isn’t sure how it would have performed.
“I used to grow some durum, but I haven’t for quite a few years. We always had the fusarium. It’s pretty common around here,” he said.
“I prefer feed cereals, although this year I am trying a little bit of durum again.”
Fitting fall planted cereals into the rotations has proved challenging, despite their profitability. Prairie acres have fallen to 635,000 this year from 1.35 million in 2012.