Northwest And Nation’s Wheat Farmers Battling Fungus
“Rust” is a four-letter word that makes wheat farmers shudder. The dusty orange fungus called stripe rust cut wheat yields in half. Especially this year—when there’s been an abundance of snow, rain and cool weather.
Farmers are battling the fungus from Louisiana and Texas all the way to Canada. If left untreated, highly-susceptible varieties can lose 60 percent of their yields.
In the Northwest, stripe rust is at epidemic levels.
“(Because the stripe rust grow into the plant tissue, ) they can suck the water and utilize the nutrition from plants,” said Xianming Chen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Pullman. And that shrivels the kernels. And nobody wants to buy that.
Chen said stripe rust spores can travel for hundreds of miles on the wind. So infected fields can impact other fields from a long ways away. He said bad stripe rust is quite easy to spot in the fields. If you rub an infected leaf, your finger will become yellow or orange.
“When stripe rust is very severe, when you walk into the fields—you get the orange / yellow color on your pants and shoes,” Chen said.
Chen said farmers are having to make a difficult choice right now: do they spray again, or not spray? Wheat farmers are getting moderate prices for their crop these days, so too many input costs can bag profits.
To spray fields earlier in the season with a large tractor can cost around $5 an acre. But to spray with a plane later in the season around the beginning of June can cost $15 an acre. That’s a significant cost for farmers faced with moderate-prices for their wheat.
To battle stripe rust experts like Chen are developing new, stronger varieties of wheat that have better tolerance of stripe rust. They are also working with major chemical companies to come up with new, more-effective fungicide treatments and they are working on the genetics of wheat plants to help find the resistant genes in stronger wheat.
Chen also works up a model each year to predict how bad stripe rust will become to help farmers make decisions on how and when to treat their fields.