Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Tim Leeds 

Fungus invades Hi-Line wheat crops


Havre Daily News/Nikki Carlson

Hi-Line Chemical/Taylor Aviation Inc. field scouting agronomist Arleen Rice, left, and a pilot from Texas Tuesday evening at the Havre City-County Airport review maps of wheat fields that the pilot will spray with fungicide. Rice said Hi-Line wheat fields are afflicted with tan spot and stripe rust fungus from the excess moisture this spring and summer.

A problem not seen in the region for decades is plaguing farmers, with the wet weather bringing fungal diseases to local crops.

Arleen Rice of Taylor Aviation said that company's planes — they had to bring in more from other areas — have been flying nonstop for weeks spraying Hi-Line crops to fight the fungal diseases, primarily stripe rust.

"You can walk out in the fields right now and the bottom of your boots turn red," she said, adding, "We have sprayed tens of thousands of acres already."

Hill County Extension Agent Joe Broesder said it is critical for farmers to detect and fight the fungal infections.

The battle is with stripe rust fungal infection, although tan spot and powdery mildew also are prevalent. The main focus is on the stripe rust.

"If the weather would straighten out, it would help with the others, " Broesder said.

Especially with the winter wheat now heading into its late stage — developing the tall, broad flag leaves — it is crucial to control the infections. Broesder said the impact varies with the severity of the infection and the variety of the wheat, but the stripe rust can cut back yields by 10 bushels-an-acre or more.

The fungus is starting to show up on spring wheat crops as well.

Mary Burrows, plant pathologist at Montana State University Extension in Bozeman, said she conducted tests that showed spraying for stripe rust would increase yields by an average of 10 bushels an acre. The fungus generally cuts yields by 10 percent to 20 percent.

She said the benefit depends on the variety of wheat, the type of fungicide — she said a blend or triazole probably is best for this — and when it is applied.

"Spray as soon as you see it, " Burrows said. "If they don't have stripe rust they have tan spot, so you might as well just spray."

Rice said the cost is high — $15 to $20 an acre — to spray, but with the high input costs, including from chemicals and diesel, farmers are having to protect their crops.

"The economic loss is huge, but the economic output for growers is a major consideration …," she said. "They've got such a huge investment already in this crop … and there's a beautiful crop out there."

And with wheat running from more than $7 a bushel to more than $14 a bushel depending on whether it is spring or winter, and on variety and protein, losing 10 bushels or more an acre would be a major loss.

"It's serious money," Burrows said.

The local producers are being proactive, Rice said, and they are keeping her company, and other aerial sprayers, busy.

"The Havre airport has to be busier than it's been since World War II," she said.

It has been decades since the fungal diseases have been a major problem in this area, with cool nights, warm days and high levels of moisture being the key ingredients to their spreading.

"It's something we've never really dealt with since the 1970s, " said Montana Grain Growers Association Treasurer Ryan McCormick, who farms near Kremlin. "It's a new management issue for us."

The infections are widespread, although some producers are being hit, others aren't.

Broesder said the problems in Hill County run from north of Havre to Box Elder. And the problem is increasing, exploding over the last week. Checking the crops has become a daily task, Broesder said.

"People absolutely need to be out there looking at that crop," he said.

McCormick said he got lucky — he sent a sample to Broesder for testing and was told he needed to spray. He was one of the first to have fungicide applied, he said.

He also researched the problem using resources in North Dakota, which has to deal with fungal diseases virtually every year.

"It's better to be proactive, better to try to get it sprayed ahead of time, " he said. "We haven't really seen an effect from it (in our crops), but right across the road you can see its visibly damaged the crop."

And some producers are having to fight the infection now, while others have not yet been hit.

Lauri Chvilicek of Hingham said her husband, Charles, had just checked their crops and they were not yet infected.

"We're keeping a close eye on it," she said.

Jon Stoner, who farms north of Havre, said he knows many people who have been hit, but his crops have not been affected, as yet.

"'We've been checking, " he said. "We've just been lucky so far."

And the fungus can spread rapidly. The spores are carried by the wind — even during a rainstorm, McCormick said.

Burrows said that if the wet weather continues, as fast as the spores can travel, it could become a statewide problem. Hill and Chouteau counties are two of the hardest hit so far east of the divide, although the problem showed up west of the divide even earlier than in this region.

Broesder said work also needs to be done to try to minimize its carryover to next year. If the wet weather continues, the fungus will thrive. Farmers will need to make sure they prevent any volunteer wheat or other vegetation from growing and transmitting the fungus to new crops.

The weather has to cooperate and farmers will need to spray fallow ground and any recrop to make sure the vegetation is dead before new crops are planted.

"The green bridge is what carries over the fungus, " he said. "We need to get that green bridge broke. "


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