Spornado causes a whirlwind of new research

There’s an affordable way to detect fusarium or sclerotinia spores — but it’s not one-and-done technology

A device that helps alert growers to the presence of airborne pathogens has been popping up in some Alberta cereal and canola fields in the last couple of years.

But while Spornado — and in-crop spore detection in general — is promoted as a tool to take the guesswork out of fungicide application decisions, this is not a one-and-done technology.

Although such traps can help producers quickly know when to spray, some big questions remain, including: Where should I put the device for best results? How many do I need? Under what environmental conditions is it most or least effective?

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That’s why crop disease researcher Kelly Turkington is leading a three-year, cross-country research project in which the Spornado will play a key role.

The basic idea is to develop some best practices to help producers using this technology get the most value from fungicide applications.

Ultimately, the biggest ask on Turkington’s spore detection wish list is the ability to identify the severity of a disease infection.

“(The Spornado) can tell you whether the pathogen is there or not but we don’t know if the amount detected corresponds to low, moderate or high risk of fusarium head blight (FHB) or sclerotinia stem rot,” said Turkington, a plant pathologist with Agriculture Canada in Lacombe. Right now, it just tells you if pathogen spores are present, but not exactly where the infection areas are and how much fungicide (if any) should be applied.

And that’s what farmers want to know, said Sarah Foster, senior seed analyst with Spornado distributor 20/20 Seed Labs.

Sarah Foster.
photo: Supplied

“Right now producers are asking, when they detect spores in their fields, how many of them there need to be to infect the crop,” said Foster. “That’s something we’re working on because we don’t know. We just know that they are there and it’s best to take action and spray accordingly.

“But I think as we go down this path we are going to be able to say we just picked up a trace and maybe they don’t need to spray.”

Old tool, new potential

Airborne spore traps have been around for decades. However, they’ve largely been used in the research world; they weren’t developed as user-friendly tools for producers. The Spornado was designed to change that.

“It’s probably one of the first traps that could potentially be used on a large scale commercially,” said Turkington.

Essentially a funnel which captures airborne disease spores on a cassette filter, the Spornado — at least in Western Canada — is primarily used to help identify sclerotinia stem rot in canola and FHB in cereals. It’s considered a passive trap, meaning it doesn’t actively draw spores into it.

Producers send the cassette-based sample to 20/20 Seed Labs, which uses a molecular DNA detection process developed by the company. Results are ready within a day of the lab receiving the sample. (The Winnipeg-based company’s head Alberta office and lab is in Nisku, with other drop-offs located in Lethbridge and near Taber.)

“We can turn the results around very, very quickly,” said Foster. “We usually send clients an email or a notification on their cellphone. That way they can get going on the application when it’s really, really timely. We are able to narrow the window down on fungicide applications.”

It’s very simple to use, added Turkington.

“The cassettes deployed within the traps are very easily put in — they’re essentially snapped in and snapped out. They’re very practical in terms of a crop consultant or agronomist utilizing them for an individual farmer.”

And the price is right, he said. Packages of one Spornado plus either one cassette and two pathogen tests (or two cassettes and one pathogen test) go for a pre-tax price of $490.

“Its cost from a relative point of view is fairly low compared to what a farmer would be looking at spending on fungicide or other inputs,” he said.

Optimizing applications

The research project — a joint effort by the federal and provincial governments as well as the University of Alberta — is divided into two components. The first is a cross-country fungicide trial in which DNA-based assessments of sclerotinia inoculum load will be measured prior to and throughout the flowering period.

Each of the 10 research sites will receive nine fungicide treatments including a control check, said Turkington. The bottom-line goal is to develop a knowledge base of optimal fungicide timings based on yield and performance under varying sclerotinia spore loads, different levels of rainfall and a number of relative humidity (RH) and temperature conditions.

“In all of these 10 sites we will be harvesting the plots, measuring yield and looking at different fungicide timings in terms of the final disease level and yield response in the crop,” said Turkington. “We will then relate that back to what we find with the spore traps and what the conditions were in terms of RH and especially temperature.

“We can then look at our fungicide timings to build a better understanding of factors that influence those key timings so we get the most out of our fungicide.”

The second component focuses more on the Spornado itself.

Turkington is working with University of Alberta Professor Stephen Strelkov and master’s student Eleanor McBain. McBain’s project involves monitoring spore loads with both the Spornado and the Rotorod sampler (an active, volumetric pollen/spore sampler primarily used for research) in commercial canola fields while also monitoring temperature, RH and rainfall.

In one of the fields she set up a grid of five of these paired traps (one in each corner and one in the centre).

“Through Eleanor’s research we are trying to develop a better understanding of potentially where in a field we need to put a spore trap such as the Spornado and if we need to place more than one,” said Turkington.

“Ideally, from a practical point of view I would say it would be better if we could just get away with one trap in the field because as you start to increase the number of traps it increases the costs and time to deploy, collect and test the spore samples.”

These projects fit well with her company’s goal of optimizing the value of the Spornado and molecular DNA testing, said Foster.

“The research on how many Spornados are needed in the field is absolutely bang on,” she said.

“Right now we are recommending one (Spornado) is sufficient to at least get some information. But if they are getting detection on one side of the field and not the other, we can look at crop rotations and how the wind affects that presence or absence in different locations of the field.”

The device can collect virtually any kind of disease spore, she added. The ongoing challenge is adapting the molecular DNA technique to detect spores from a broader range of diseases on more crops.

“We have now extended it to potatoes. We have a couple of units out in potato fields in southern Alberta detecting potato late blight.”

The Spornado actually got its start collecting airborne potato head blight spores in Ontario. However, what works in one region may not necessarily work in another, said Foster.

“The blight that was detected in Ontario isn’t necessarily the same species of blight found in southern Alberta, so we have to do a little bit of research to make sure we are targeting the right pathogen.”

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