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It’s a Spornado! But that’s good news for cereal growers

New tool for detecting disease-causing spores being rolled out across the Prairies

Hold on to your hats — the Spornado is coming.

Trevor Blois.
photo: Supplied

“(The Spornado) is a really good tool that’s been developed over the last couple of years,” said Trevor Blois, disease diagnostician for 20/20 Seed Labs.

“It’s just a passive spore catcher that has been used by potato growers in Ontario to detect late blight spores, and that’s really helped them with timing their fungicide applications.”

Developed by Sporometrics and used primarily thus far in potato and tomato crops in Central Canada, the Spornado is a low-tech way to collect disease-causing spores from the air and water. The cone-shaped tool is placed in the field during the growing season, and then traps spores in specialized filters. These filters are then sent to a lab for testing, with a two- to three-day turnaround time (although, for a price, one-day rush jobs are possible).

20/20 Seed Labs has slowly been rolling out the Spornado in Alberta to help producers combat sclerotinia in canola and fusarium head blight in cereal crops. Last year, the lab trialled the spore catchers in Vegreville, Beaverlodge, and Lacombe, and the intent is to distribute them more widely across Western Canada in the coming growing season.

That’s becoming increasingly important for a disease like fusarium head blight, which is continuing to spread across Alberta.

“2016 was the worst year that we had. It was almost at 20 per cent — nearly one in five samples in the lab coming up positive on the plate,” said Blois.

“This past year was, generally speaking, a drier growing season, so we saw a big dip down to five per cent of samples, or one in 20 samples, testing positive.”

But another wet year and those numbers will likely soar again.

“The biggest factor in all of this is the moisture. Anywhere you see a dip, it was generally speaking a drier year.”

The per cent of infected kernels in positive samples also dropped this past year, but again, that’s being driven by moisture. Typically, the per cent of infected kernels stays between 1.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent, but in 2017, only about 0.1 per cent of kernels tested positive for fusarium graminearum — lower even than 2007 when fusarium was starting to gain a toehold in Alberta.

“It shows that not only the per cent of infected samples is down, but the average per cent of infection is down as well,” said Blois.

But though the rate and severity of infection varies from year to year, one thing remains constant — the ongoing spread of the disease throughout the province. In 2007, fusarium head blight was localized in southern Alberta, but since then, it has spread into central, eastern, and northern Alberta, with 20 per cent of all fields in the eastern part of the province showing signs of the pathogen in a 2016 Alberta Agriculture field survey.

“In 2017, the levels of fusarium were lower, but it’s still pretty predominant across Alberta,” said Blois.

“It’s becoming really common.”

And right now, there are no silver bullets for managing fusarium — just extended rotations, resistant varieties, clean seed, and fungicide applications, all of which will reduce but not prevent fusarium.

But once it’s rolled out more broadly across the Prairies, the Spornado will be another tool in the arsenal in managing the disease, Blois added.

“It will give you an early warning that fusarium graminearum is in your area, and there are certain management practices you can use once you know it’s present.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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