Saskatchewan cereal farmers are hoping a crop infection that’s troubled the province for years will not return this year.
Fusarium is a crop infection that affects the yield and quality of cereal crops. The infection produces mycotoxins in the crop. The most common mycotoxin produced is DON, which is poisonous to both humans and livestock and can make them sick. Farmers have to sell their crops at a lower grade depending on the level of mycotoxins in the crops, but there are preventative measures farmers can take.
Gerrid Gust grows durum and wheat near Davidson. He said that, although he didn’t have fusarium last year, he had been affected the three years before. “If you go from the 2014, 15, and 16 crops, they were all horrible and got progressively worse until 2016. Almost every bit of wheat that we grew had fusarium.”
Laura Reiter is the Research Chair at the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, and farms northwest of Saskatoon. “The infection happens at heading, and then you really don’t see it until the seeds are forming,” she said.
“Depending on the severity of the infection, you can have just mild development all the way down to what they call tombstone kernels where the actual wheat kernel, instead of being nice and red and plump, is shrivelled and shrunken and grey from the fungus.”
“Two years ago was quite a bad outbreak for fusarium in the province,” Reiter said. “It influenced grade, it influenced ability to market grain, it caused a lot of problems.”
The Government of Saskatchewan website says that fusarium head blight is a fungal disease that affects small grain cereals like wheat, barley, oats and corn. “In Saskatchewan, durum wheat, spring wheat, and barley are most affected by this disease,” it reads.
Financially, fusarium can be a huge blow to both individual farmers and the province. “If everyone’s got fusarium and it downgrades the entire western Canadian crop, then across the province it’d be hundreds of million of dollars and on each individual farmer it would range between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential lost revenue,” said Gust.
The drop in crop quality caused by fusarium is a main cause of this financial loss. “Certain levels of fusarium in your sample changes the grade that you get, and ultimately what you get paid for it,” said Reiter.
“The difference between being able to sell your durum as a number one and having to sell it as a number four or a number five or a sample can be a huge dollar figure for just a single farm, let alone for the whole province.”
Reiter said scouting crops carefully for fusarium is important. “If you aren’t aware that your crop is at the right stage and susceptible to the fungus, the application of the fungicide only works at the same timeframe, so there’s no value in spraying it three weeks later.”
She also said that spraying fungicide is key in controlling the disease in its early stages. “If you’re not scouting and not paying attention, you can end up without having that tool to try and control the fusarium.”
But before the first signs of fusarium appear, there are preventative measures farmers can take. “Using clean seed, using proper rotation of your crops,” said Gust, “and then hope for hot, dry weather.”
He said that spraying preventively when the crop first starts to flower can be effective, but that developing more genetically resistant crops is also beneficial.
“If we can breed crops that are healthier, that are less susceptible to the disease, that don’t get it as bad, that’s almost a better route to take, because trying to rely on chemicals and herbicides, it just costs more and [is] not as effective.”
Reiter said that prevention can be difficult, and mirrored Gust’s attitude toward genetically resistant crops.
“By the time you actually see that you’ve got fusarium, it’s much too late.”
“Some varieties are more genetically resistant to fusarium than others,” she said, “and that helps, so picking some of the new variates that are more resistant is a big deal. After that, there’s not a lot of prevention that you can do.”
A useful tool for Saskatchewan farmers is the fusarium head blight risk map that the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission produces. These maps are released each year around June to alert farmers to areas most at risk of fusarium in the province.