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Spornado could give heads up on disease

Collecting airborne disease spores could offer growers an early warning

An Alberta seed testing company has crop disease monitoring technology in the works that could provide some of the answers as suggested in the old Bob Dylan song about what’s “Blowin’ in The Wind.”

20/20 Seed Labs, based in Nisku, just south of Edmonton, is continuing its field testing in 2019 using fairly simple-looking equipment to collect the windborne disease spores such as fusarium head blight and sclerotinia to hopefully provide farmers with a heads up on potential disease levels in a crop.

The idea, says Trevor Blois, disease diagnostician supervisor with 20/20, is to use the Spornado to collect airborne disease spores. By monitoring the device closely during the high-risk flowering period of cereal and canola crops farmers could be alerted to the potential disease risk.

“It could play a role in alerting farmers that a disease is present in areas where it is not commonly found,” says Blois. “Or in other situations as it is monitored weekly it could be used to show whether disease levels (spore counts) are increasing. It could be a tool in helping farmers decide whether a fungicide application is needed.”

The Spornado, developed in Ontario to successfully monitor late blight disease spores that can affect potato crops, looks like a cone-shaped weather vane mounted on a pole that is self-adjusting to face prevailing winds. Inside, at the back of the cone is a removable filter or cassette that collects any airborne microscopic disease spores. The cassette can easily be replaced with a fresh filter, while the “used” one is sent to 20/20 Seed Labs for testing.

Technicians can perform a DNA test on any spores collected in the filter and advise farmers what diseases might be present in their fields. While other airborne pathogens such as stripe rust could also be monitored, the lab is focusing on FHB and sclerotinia in this test phase. The Spornado is a passive (non-motorized) device that collects whatever blows into the collection cone. Once a producer couriers the filter to the lab, 20/20 says it can provide a 24-hour (sometimes even same business day) turnaround on disease DNA results.

After a couple of seasons of limited field-testing of the system, the lab so far can provide a two-level rating — trace levels or a positive. They are hoping to refine that further in coming years.

“We still have a season or two of more monitoring of the system before we can offer more specific information,” says Blois. And 20/20 Seed Labs isn’t ready to launch Spornado as a service. They’ve been working with producer co-operators over the 2017 and 2018 growing seasons to see how effective the equipment is in collecting spores. And with fairly dry conditions, and lower disease pressures in 2018 test results were somewhat limited.

Blois says the system, that has been beneficial in providing disease risk information to Ontario potato growers, needs to be monitored during the crop flowering period when airborne pathogens can infect flowers. He says it would probably be recommended to have the Spornado in place two to three weeks before crop flowering with the filters checked weekly. In early trials in Alberta, it appears one Spornado can collect information on airborne disease spores over about a quarter section. One unit could be positioned between fields to collect information for both crops.

As the Spornado service is developed it complements 20/20 Seed Lab’s existing FHB disease mapping forecast service. For updates on Spornado and other seed lab services visit their website.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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