New map tracks fusarium spread in Alberta

The fusarium infection surveillance project has put the province’s growers in a better place than they were a few years ago

Alberta Seed Processors has developed a new map and report to help producers and pedigreed seed growers control the spread of fusarium graminearum.

Earlier this month, the group released a report and map that shows which areas of Alberta were most heavily impacted by fusarium graminearum, the pathogen that causes fusarium headblight in wheat and other cereal crops.

Data was collected with the help of three Alberta-based seed testing labs — SGS Canada, 20/20 Seed Labs and Seed Check Technologies.

Other collaborators in the report included the Alberta wheat and barley commissions and Michael Harding, a provincial pathologist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Monika Klaas, ASP’s general manager, said the fusarium infection surveillance project has helped to put Alberta growers in a better place than they were a few years ago.

Until recently, Alberta’s Agricultural Pests Act made it illegal to sell any grain, including pedigreed seed, that was known to contain the seed-borne fusarium graminearum pathogen.

Unfortunately, the act proved ineffective at keeping the pathogen out of the province.

Regulatory changes now acknowledge that the pathogen exists in Alberta.

In early 2020, the province supported a ministerial order to remove fusarium graminearum from the list of pests covered under the province’s Agricultural Pests Act.

Removing fusarium from the regulation will allow “Alberta to modernize to managing the disease, rather than having zero tolerance for it,” the province said in a June 2020 news release.

The province’s new approach cleared the way for concerted pathogen surveillance efforts as well as the promotion and adoption of disease mitigation strategies.

“Prior to this project, data on seed infection was available but it was fragmented,” Klaas said in a recent interview.

“One lab would release a report and another lab would release another report and sometimes the reports were in different formats.

“What this (report) does is it coalesces all of the data from three Alberta seed labs in Alberta and it gives us a pretty comprehensive look at where the infections are.”

The fusarium survey gathered results from more than 8,600 cereal grain seed samples originating from 60 rural municipalities in Alberta and two urban municipalities.

Of those sample results, the highest infection rate in a submitted seed sample was 91 percent.

However, most seed samples submitted tested negative for the pathogen. The average infection rate was 0.346 percent.

Fusarium headblight can cause significant yield and grade losses.

The pathogen that causes the disease — fusarium graminearum — comes from two sources: infected seed and wind-blown spores from infected crop residues.

Fusarium graminearum is typically more common in areas that are subject to high rainfall amounts and humid growing conditions during cereal flowering.

The ASP map, which is based on seed tests and conducted from September 2020 to May 2021, suggests that the percentage of seed samples testing positive were highest in northeastern Alberta in counties that had abundant soil moisture during the 2020 growing season.

Test results were correlated with provincial rainfall data, which supported the notion that high rainfall, high moisture and high humidity are conditions most conducive to fusarium graminearum.

Another important factor affecting disease incidence and infection rates is the presence of corn stover, which is a known vector of the pathogen.

Although the ASP survey looked only at pathogen infections in submitted seed samples, it is assumed that expanded corn acreage in the province is contributing to a higher incidence of fusarium graminearum and fusarium headblight.

“Corn is becoming more prevalent in the province but our message is not that you should avoid growing corn,” Klaas said.

“We’re not bashing corn by any stretch of the imagination. We’re just saying, be advised that corn is a huge source of fusarium inoculum, so if you or your neighbours are growing corn, you should be using all of the best management practices and preventive programs.”

Klaas said dry growing conditions this year are not conducive to the spread of the disease or to high infection levels.

However, growers in areas where there is a higher risk should be vigilant.

Seed growers and processors have welcomed the data and the report, even in areas where fusarium graminearum incidence is relatively high, she added.

“When you have an issue that is now endemic, to try to pretend that you don’t have it or that it’s not a problem doesn’t do anybody any good,” Klaas said.

“Fortunately, we have everyone on board, understanding why the data is important and how it should be used.

“I think Alberta is in a way better place than we were a few years ago” in terms of acknowledging the problem and working to control it.

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