U.S. consumer food trends coupled with expectations of export nation trade partners are increasing the demand for stellar quality wheat production. Bottom line: Wheat growers are relying on professional guidance from their ag retailers, crop consultants and area agronomists for crop protection solutions that push the quality of their crop to an all time high. Growers want to know what they can do to enhance their wheat crop's quality and maximize their profit potential.

Wheat disease management is part of the quality control process, and crop protection companies are recommending proactive strategies. Deoxynivalenol (DON) is the most "watched" mycotoxin in wheat and barley and, therefore, a critical aspect to why cereal crops can receive low quality grades and price dockages. Commonly referred to as vomitoxin, DON is produced by the fungus that causes fusarium head blight, or "scab."

Fungicides are the weapon to depend on for quality output, according to Randy Myers, Bayer CropScience fungicide product manager. An increasing number of U.S. wheat and barley acres are receiving annual, proactive fungicide treatment for overall crop quality protection.

Proactive Approach Emphasized
"With grain elevators setting sharper dockages for mycotoxin levels, failure to use a proactive approach, like a fungicide, in disease management during the growing season could mean major financial losses to the grower," Myers said.

A proactive approach also is being stressed by BASF with its wheat disease management program, and attention to wheat quality is being raised by other crop protection companies, too. Wheat has become a crop of emphasis because of the obvious potential in three areas-higher yields, higher quality and higher profits. Ag retailers and crop consultants are key to accomplishing all three while also increasing their value in the eyes of wheat growers.

Jacob Hecht, agronomist, Star of the West Milling Company in Richville, Mich., said his company performs field tests on production practices and inputs like fungicides in order to make recommendations to grower customers under contract. "Since 2002, we have been testing fungicide use versus non-use on cereal crops. On fields treated consistently with fungicides as a proactive measure to battle the potential for disease, we see increased yields, higher test weight and better quality," he said. "From these results, I recommend fungicide as an annual practice to my entire customer base."

Myers said growers want a dependable fungicide to protect their crop investments against not only scab but leaf diseases as well. Leaf diseases have an impact mostly on yield performance in wheat acres. Head diseases claim most of the responsibility for reduced quality grades, while also reducing yield and test weight.

The proactive approach has to be a break even in cost to growers, even if disease pressure turns out to be lighter than expected. "Preventing disease right from the beginning is important to get seedlings off to a healthy start," said Gary Schmitz, Ph.D., Midwest regional technical manager for BASF. "As the plant matures, disease pressure increases, so it's critical to continue protecting the plant throughout its lifecycle."

Eliminating DON has become a real emphasis while protecting yields from many more head and leaf diseases. Bayer CropScience received registration on its broad spectrum fungicide, Prosaro, during the summer of 2008. BASF is talking about its Twinline, Headline and Caramba fungicides with each being mentioned for specific disease concerns; Caramba is the one noted for its suppression of head scab.

Professor Point of View
Carl Bradley, Ph.D., assistant professor of plant pathology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill. is a strong proponent of wheat disease management. Bradley suggests avoiding wheat-after-corn rotations. He also recommends choosing wheat varieties with the best levels of scab resistance available, although he added, "no variety has complete resistance."

"Even on varieties with the best resistance available, fungicides should be considered if the conditions are favorable for disease," said Bradley. He suggests referring to www.wheatscab.psu.edu, a Web site developed by several university scientists that forecasts the scab risk for most wheat-producing regions in the U.S.

"Although various steps can be taken to reduce the risk of a scab outbreak, the most important factor is an uncontrollable one: the weather," said Bradley.

He has observed fungicide results under various weather conditions. Bayer notes that it establishes trials for years in advance of product registration, and with Prosaro, a total of 98 side-by-side wheat trials occurred, the first in 2001.

Field Trials Show Results
In 2008, Illinois wheat acres had an increase in disease pressure due to a moist, wet growing condition. "We saw significant disease severity reductions in scab and leaf rust with Prosaro," said Bradley. At one location, Prosaro-treated wheat averaged zero percent scab severity and two percent rust severity, while untreated check averaged 10 percent and 35 percent. At another location, DON levels went from 4.7 parts per million in the untreated check to 2 parts per million with Prosaro. In that same trial, we saw an eight-bushel-per-acre yield boost with Prosaro versus the untreated check."

Mark Huso, a retailer and crop consultant with Lake Region Grain in northeast North Dakota, said field trials play an important role in his customer recommendations. He administered a 2008 demo field trial comparing cereal fungicides.

"This past year was virtually disease-free in our region," said Huso. "Despite that, the strips applied with Prosaro yielded two more bushels per acre, proved a little better in protein levels and showed one point higher in test weight. The product more than paid for itself with additional profit returns."

Marketability as an Issue
Across all kinds of conditions, growers need a fungicide that reduces mycotoxins when present by 50 percent to 60 percent. "In years of heavy scab pressure, this level of reduction could mean preserving the marketability of a crop," said Myers. "In years of lighter pressure, it means producing an even better crop than expected, helping to secure premiums for high grades."

Because scab cannot be cured once the infection hits a crop, Myers recommends not relying on the "wait and see" approach. "Operations need to implement an annual, proactive approach to disease management," he explained. "If warm and humid climate conditions along with a moist soil surface are present as grain heading approaches and the Fusarium pathogen is present, disease will develop. You don't want to wait until you can see signs of the disease to spray. By then it's too late to get the most out of the fungicide applications."

When scab hits, it can have a grave impact on crop marketability. When scab infection occurs at early flowering stages, the results are clearly visible with shrunken or chalky white and discolored kernels. Late infections may show no visible damage but could still cause elevated levels of DON.

The concern about DON has been reinforced by milling company executives. "DON affects everyone in the wheat value chain," said Carl Schwinke, vice president of grain supply for Siemer Milling in Teutopolis, Ill. "With uncontrolled disease, producers' yields decrease, and they see more discounts for quality and grain damage. Marketing grain becomes a struggle for grain elevators as they may need to bin grain separately according to different levels of DON. Milling yields fall, as well as millers' profit margins. And the end user faces a higher cost for flour," he said.

Milling company agronomist Hecht's customer territory has experienced a few bad scab years, resulting in hard-to-sell wheat. "It's too critical of an issue not to address," he said. "We millers need to sell a good quality product to the end-user. If a grower can reduce DON levels when scab infects a region, it could mean a huge advantage in his return on investment considering the premium that the grower could have been paid and the discounts he may receive for too much DON."

Retailer Huso, based on his field trials, said, "When advising growers on a crop protection strategy, I tell them it's just as efficient to use fungicides as herbicides. My customers need to produce the highest quality wheat that they can in their fields. In the end, it means more money in their wallets."

Article written by Heather Koehler, AdFarm, and Richard Keller.