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Fighting blackleg Down Under

Australia's battle to hold back blackleg has had its share of success

Recent Australian canola seed varieties grown. Data source: Syngenta analysis, presented in 2019.

Speakers at Syngenta’s launch of Saltro, a new seed treatment, explained that Australian farmers have a different, more conservative approach to blackleg. In 1973, said Steve Marcroft from Marcroft Grains Pathology in Australia, “blackleg completely destroyed the crop.” For 15 years after that, there was very little canola grown in Australia.

In the late 1980s, the first blackleg-resistant canola variety was brought to the country, and Australian canola production increased in the 1990s. Then, blackleg severity began to increase again. In 2000, a canola variety with genetic resistance was introduced and farmers benefited from a 30 per cent yield increase.

In 2004, Marcroft says, “blackleg struck back.” With Australia’s relatively warm weather, winter rainfall provides ideal conditions for the disease.

Since 2011, Australian farmers have been using foliar fungicides to control blackleg. By 2018, about 20 per cent of farmers were using it every year. Marcroft said 50 per cent of agronomists said they’d recommend foliar application if conditions were right. Australians have access to an app that can predict the economic value of potential yield loss from blackleg.

James Ingray, Delta Ag Australia senior agronomist and farmer, explained that the canola seed market in Australia is very different from Canada’s market. More than half of the canola seeded in Australia is open pollinated (OP) and triazine tolerant (TT). Syngenta’s analysis shows that about 45 per cent of the canola seeded each year is OP, TT seed that has been retained on farm from previous years.

It isn’t that Australian farmers aren’t open to innovation or interested in buying hybrid varieties. It’s that many Australian farmers can expect to see a drought more than twice every 10 years. In a good year, they know they could make more money buying and growing hybrid seed, but over the years they’ve become very sensitive to input costs. If a drought strikes, they are unlikely to recoup the costs of buying hybrid seed. There are considerable cost savings in using your own seed, but it’s not completely free. “They do have to have it tested, and they always put a seed treatment on it,” Ingray said. Australian farmers are also coping with changing weather patterns. To combat changing weather, farmers have brought seeding times forward.

“Anzac Day (April 25),” Ingray said, “used to be the day they started seeding canola. Now it’s the completion date,” or even the day they’d like to see their canola out of the ground.

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