U.S. wheat and barley producers have incurred billions of dollars in economic losses to Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) across the past couple decades. Fortunately, substantial progress has been made in the battle against FHB (commonly referred to as "scab") through the development of moderately resistant varieties, fungicides that can provide good levels of control, and other management practices.

Still, these are tools; none is a panacea providing simple and complete protection against scab. So the research - much of which is supported by the U.S. Wheat & Barley Scab Initiative (USWBSI) - continues.

One of the most important management aids currently available is the Fusarium Head Blight Risk Assessment Tool operated by the Fusarium Head Blight Prediction Center. Its website - http://www.wheatscab.psu.edu/riskTool.html - displays daily risk maps for Fusarium Head Blight in 30 states and walks the user through the process of generating a prediction based on factors such as geographic location and type of grain.

The assessment tool's models use weather variables observed one week prior to flowering, since weather during that period is a key component in the production (or lack thereof) of infectious spores of the fungus that causes head scab.

Testing has shown the models to be correct about 75% of the time. Importantly, however, the models are supplemented by commentary from university crop specialists in affected states.

These commentaries provide ground truth information and real-time observations. "When the state specialist - who hopefully has excellent credibility with stakeholders - agrees with the models and provides a personal assessment of risk, based on years of experience, the stakeholders look at the model outputs with a much higher level of trust," remarks University of Kentucky extension plant pathologist Don Hershman.

Going hand-in-hand with the scab assessment tool is the U.S. Wheat & Barley Scab Initiative-sponsored FHB Alert System. Its purpose is to give growers, advisors and grain industry personnel better advanced notice of potential outbreaks and the risk of scab in their area, thus facilitating the timely treatment of at-risk fields with fungicides.

Alerts are sent to one's cell phone or email, with the frequency and timing of alerts depending upon a given area's risk for serious scab problems - which obviously varies, depending upon environmental conditions and crop stage.

Subscription to the FHB Alert System is free. Interested persons can sign up at the following web address: http://scabusa.org/fhb_alert.php.

Kansas State University plant pathologist Erick DeWolf is a principal developer of the scab prediction model/FHB Risk Assessment Tool and a coordinator of the FHB Alert System. DeWolf says a 2012 use survey indicated that the average monetary value of the information provided by the prediction system was estimated (by survey respondents) at $17,000 per user.

"Combining this figure with use statistics suggests that the annual impact of the FHB prediction model exceeds $170 million," he reports.

While that's an impressive number, DeWolf and others hope it will grow significantly in 2014 and beyond. "Approximately 10,000 users annually is a great start," he states. "However, with so many farms and businesses potentially affected by FHB, there is still a need to get more people involved."

DeWolf emphasizes that the Fusarium Head Blight Prediction Center truly has been a multi-state, multi-disciplinary endeavor since its inception. For its part, in addition to providing funding for the FHB Prediction Center, the U.S. Wheat & Barley Scab Initiative plays another very important role, DeWolf adds - that of providing "a unifying framework for collaboration that makes such a large multi-state effort possible."