Fusarium Is In Alberta. Now What?

The Alberta Fusarium Graminearum Management Plan describes fusarium graminearum as “the most destructive fungal disease of wheat and barley in Canada.” It also claimed (in 2002) that “Alberta is currently free from any fusarium head blight outbreaks caused by fusarium graminearum” and that the management plan was implemented to “prevent the establishment of fusarium graminearum in Alberta and to prevent the increase and spread of fusarium graminearum should it be found in Alberta.”

Unfortunately, it appears the Alberta Fusarium Graminearum Management Plan has not only failed to prevent the introduction of fusarium into Alberta, it also appears the plan is being ignored in areas where fusarium has been found, which will likely lead to further spread of the disease.

Randy Clear, program manager with the Canada Grain Commission, said 10 per cent of harvest samples of Hard Red Spring wheat submitted by farmers from Alberta Crop Districts 1 and 2 last year showed damage from fusarium. Evidence of fusarium in durum samples was even higher. The dominant strain of fusarium in crop Districts 1 and 2 in 2009 was fusarium graminearum. Clear reports the incidence of the disease was severe enough to cause down-grading in some samples.

Beverly Mitchell of Seedcheck Technologies Inc., an Alberta seed testing lab, confirms an increase of fusarium on seed samples submitted from southern Alberta. The fusarium management plan calls for the testing of all grain intended for use of seed before cleaning. As a result, seed test labs are a good source of information about the presence of fusarium.

PINNING DOWN AN INFECTION SOURCE

Clear could not provide any definitive answer as to how this disease became established in Alberta crop Districts 1 and 2. While prevalent in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan, it did not show up in harvest samples from western Saskatchewan as one would have suspected had the disease moved in from the East. As well, he notes there was no fusarium found in samples from central or northern Alberta. While the disease is soil-borne and can move short distances on the wind, Clear says it is also a seed-borne disease and most likely the disease arrived in southern Alberta by contaminated seed and feed.

A central Alberta market consultant suspects the importation of corn and feed products for use by the livestock industry in Alberta may be to blame for this outbreak. He notes that large amounts of feed grains continue to be moved into Alberta from the eastern Prairies and the U. S.; both areas where this disease is prevalent. Because of a shortage of feed grains early in 2000, the Alberta government did not apply the non-detectable fusarium limit to feed grains. Rather than requiring the livestock feeders have to test for fusarium, the government simply called on the livestock industry to follow management practices that would prevent feed grain to soil contact. The consultant questions if these rules were sufficient to protect grain producers. He also wonders why untested feed grains are still being allowed in untested now that feed grains are no longer in short supply.

IT’S HERE. NOW WHAT?

Regardless of how the disease has become established in central-south and east-south Alberta, management of the disease is now the priority. Unfortunately there are diverse opinions on how this should be done.

Ken Coles, manager of the Southern Applied Research Association, believes producers have to take a greater responsibility in finding ways to minimize the damage of the disease. “There are more and more positive tests in seed samples, so growers need to support management practices

that will address fusarium. Since the government seems to be pulling back from agricultural issues, growers themselves have to initiate these strategies.” He is very pleased that a group of wheat growers have already applied for permission for field-scale trials to determine if turning off irrigation when the wheat is flowering will reduce the levels of fusarium. These growers are also interested in field trials to see what effect the timing of foliar fungicides has on fusarium severity.

Coles also reports growers are unhappy with the no-detectable limits on seed. “Growers tell me this has to change. They are losing a lot of money on the seed which does not meet the no-detectable limit.”

Clear suggests a call for increasing the tolerance on seed may not be a bad thing in areas which already has the disease. “This request sounds reasonable. There really is no point in zero tolerance if the disease is already in the soil. The more important issue to consider is seed quality. What effect is the disease having on seed quality?”

Even seed-cleaning plants are calling for change. The March 2010 Association of Alberta Co-op Seed Cleaning Plant newsletter stated: “Today fusarium graminearum is present with more occurrences over the last two years. The existing management plan must change to reflect this, especially in areas with fusarium.”

Dr. Jim Broatch, pest management specialist with Alberta Agriculture, and chairman of the Alberta Fusarium Action Committee says the Agricultural Pest Act “gives an area the option to apply to the minister for an exemption (from no-detectable fusarium). The action committee does not have the power to simply issue an exemption. An area has to request an exemption”

According to Broatch, the problem is a decision would have to be made as to where fusarium is now common in Alberta. This would require some solid numbers and the action committee simply does not have those numbers. Broatch admits private labs that are testing seed likely have the numbers but will not supply this information due to privacy laws. Broatch hopes a major survey of crop residue can be done this fall and hopefully pinpoint areas where fusarium is now established.

Broatch also sees a real need to provide growers in fusarium areas with better management guidelines with respect to seed treatment, crop rotations, and especially disease management under irrigation.

He also recognizes the frustration seed growers have with the no-detectable limit when Saskatchewan growers have a five per cent fusarium limit in seed. But he reminds growers that fusarium is still regarded as a pest and it is regulated under the pest act. Broatch adds, “It is up to the municipalities to determine what to do with fusarium.”

THE PEST ACT

This comment seems aligned with the opening statement on the Alberta Agriculture webpage introducing the Agricultural Pest Act. It says: “It (The Agricultural Pest Act) is written in such a manner that the municipal local authority has the option to enforce, provide a warning, or do nothing about a pest concern.” However, Floyd Mullaney, acting director of regulatory services, Alberta Agriculture says this is definitely not the case. “It is the responsibility of local authorities to enforce the pest act. Local authorities have no option as to when to enforce the act or to question the designation of a pest. If a local authority refuses to enforce the act then the province will go in, enforce the act and bill the county for the work done.”

Caught in the middle are the agricultural fieldmen in these municipalities. When questioned about the presence of fusarium in their municipalities, two agricultural fieldmen denied any firsthand knowledge of the presence of disease even though both were in areas identified by Clear as having the disease. Both fieldmen stated they would have to follow the pest control act if the disease was confirmed in their area, however both fieldmen felt the tests are so inconclusive they would not be able to force a grower to take action on suspected fusarium and so they were not prepared to go out and look for the disease.

Even though most of Alberta remains free of the most devastating cereal disease, seed growers in the areas of Alberta where the disease is present want to be able to sell seed with a low level of this seed-borne disease. The government-instituted plan to prevent the spread of the disease still only monitors a small part of the grain that could be carrying the disease. The government agencies cannot agree on who is ultimately responsible for enforcing the act. And the fieldmen who are the frontline defence against the spread of the disease are simply pretending fusarium does not exist. Talk about a catch-22! Fusarium in Alberta is posed to be to cereal growers what Triffid is to flax growers, blackleg is to canola growers and BSE is to cattlemen.

Given this situation, the best advice comes from Alberta Agriculture’s Broatch. “Growers need to protect themselves. When buying seed, ask for the certificate that shows the seed is fusarium free. And have the seed tested again yourself.”

Gerald Pilger farms at Ohaton, Alta.

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