Fusarium levels higher in ’19 but manageable

Seed analysts and pathologists warn that more cases could be found next year if weather conditions continue to be wet

RED DEER — Seed analysts and plant pathologists say cases of fusarium graminearum in cereals spiked in 2019, pointing to wet weather as the main driver behind the spread.

Initial data from 20/20 Seed Labs shows as much as 60 percent of durum samples from Alberta had some level of infection, with wheat and barley showing roughly 20 percent of samples being infected at some rate, said Sarah Foster, president and senior seed analyst with the company.

Foster, who spoke Jan. 7 at the Agronomy Update conference in Red Deer, said even though there are more cases of the disease, the levels of infection are relatively low, ranging at around 2.5 percent.

“You guys are the heroes of the story here by managing it,” she said. “You’re working within the boundaries of the pest act, managing it properly and sending it for testing before it’s put through processing plants.”

Fusarium is difficult to control and can rob producers of yield and grade. Foster pointed to a figure that showed the disease has cost the agriculture industry $300 million annually since the 1990s.

“It’s something we need to be watching and controlling as best as we can,” she said.

Foster said the wet weather was the main driver behind its spread in 2019. In areas where pathogen levels are high, particularly in southern Alberta where durum is grown, the wet conditions managed to amplify it.

She said cases in 2019 are similar to 2016, which was also a wet year. Infections were low in the dry years of 2017 and 2018.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba also saw higher levels in 2019, though it appears they aren’t as high as 2016 levels, according to a 20/20 Seed Labs graph.

Alberta’s infection levels, however, are lower than Saskatchewan’s and Manitoba’s. In Saskatchewan, Foster said levels are high in the province’s west-central area, putting pressure on east-central Alberta.

In Manitoba, she said, 90 percent of samples have tested positive for having some level of infection of fusarium. Manitoba tends to be wetter, though, making it easier for the disease to spread.

As for 2020, Foster said it’s difficult to predict disease levels but suggested they could be high if producers face more moisture.

As well, she said some seed cleaning companies are now taking in seeds that can have infection levels of up to two percent. It could contribute to the spread.

Undetected infected seeds might also end up going through the system, she added.

“What worries me, this year, is a good number of our clients, because money is tight, decided to go with the plate method (of testing), which isn’t the most accurate,” she said.

“If we know that it’s only surface infected, we’re not going to detect it. So, there is product going through that has infection that we are not aware of, which will blow up next year given environmental conditions are ripe.”

Kelly Turkington, a research scientist with Agriculture Canada, said the Alberta Plant Health Lab found most submitted samples had fusarium. Twenty-eight of the 40 samples had it.

Other samples had blight, spot blotch, discolouration, Parastagonospora nodorum blotch, bacterial blight, take-all, tan spot and slug damage.

For 2020, he said disease levels will depend on the weather, the resistance level in local fields and the crop being grown.

He told producers to grow resistant varieties to better manage the disease, survey fields and have longer crop rotations. Higher use of fungicide applications will also make pathogens less sensitive to them, he added.

“The main thing to keep in mind (is) the growing season weather conditions, but it’s so important to stay on top of the issues in your field,” he said.

Foster recommended producers get their seeds tested through both the plate and molecular methods. It would provide them with the best result to help catch any problems early.

“With this past harvest, I understand that money is important and seed testing might take a back seat, but it shouldn’t,” she said.

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