Giving grain a facelift

JOHN ROWSELL AND HIS TEAM ARE WORKING TO MAKE ONTARIO’S GRAIN INDUSTRY MORE PROFITABLE

“we want to keep Ontario’s grain industry vibrant,” says John Rowsell, project lead for SMART spring cereals and head of northern stations with the University of Guelph. That’s a lofty goal considering the high number of variables and risks related to growing cereals, but Rowsell and his team of researchers are focusing on some of the most detrimental diseases and natural limitations that reduce cereal yield and quality and are putting them to the test against new fungicide treatments and nutrient management methods.

Rowsell says producer confidence in growing hard red spring wheat, oats and barley has been reduced over the years despite the steady domestic demand, strong selling prices and lower cost of production when compared to other rotational crops. Yields and economic returns of cereals are highly variable in Ontario due to diseases like Fusarium head blight in hard red spring wheat and barley, and crown rust and the natural effect of lodging in oats. Rowsell is hoping the research outcomes will provide farmers with fungicide and nutrient management tools to reduce the risks of growing cereals, attracting more farmers to grow cereals and maintain grain crops as a viable and profitable crop rotation.

combating fusarium
Fusarium head blight is the number one disease reducing yields and quality in cereals. “The disease is everywhere,” says Rowsell. “It spreads through spores and almost all decaying vegetation produces Fusarium spores.” The conditions have to be just right for Fusarium to infect a field; infected spores must land on the grain when the cereal is in flower and weather conditions must be humid with temperatures between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius. With little genetic resistance to Fusarium, growers already know they need to rely on fungicides to help combat this disease. But the challenge is fungicides must be applied as a preventative measure, before the field is infected, making correct timing of application essential.

According to Rowsell there is some evidence that combinations of fungicides are more effective than applying them individually, so his team is investigating this theory using on-farm trials across Ontario. Rowsell hopes this research will stimulate the adoption of fresh on-farm chemical control techniques. The research team is using common fungicides that are readily accessible so that once the results are available, farmers will be able to obtain the recommended fungicides and apply the techniques to their own fields. This fungicide combination research is being conducted on hard red spring wheat and barley.

preventing rust
Fungicides are also effective in preventing crown rust in oats. Commonly known as rust, crown rust attacks the leaves and stem of the plant inhibiting the plants ability to properly produce grain. The result is lighter oats, some discolouration and increased lodging in the plant’s stem. Similar to the hard red spring wheat and barley trials, Rowsell’s research team is combining fungicides to treat the rust while assessing the disease incidents and yields.

managing fertility
Trials evaluating the potential of nutrient management programs to boost cereal crop yields are also being conducted using quantities of nitrogen to increase yields. “Typically an increase in applied nitrogen leads to an increase in lodging,” says Rowsell because plants will grow taller as soil fertility increases. Oats are especially challenged by lodging, a direct result of plants growing too tall and falling over. The research team is also incorporating growth regulators into the trials to shorten and thicken cereal stems, reducing the effect of lodging. Overall, they hope that by increasing nitrogen, developing new nutrient management techniques and introducing growth regulators both the yield and quality of oats will increase, leading to renewed interest in the crop.

The study includes a unique geographical aspect with research being conducted across Ontario, test sites are located in New Liskeard, Winchester, Thunder Bay Agricultural Research Station and Huron Research Station. The broad geographical conditions enable researchers to look at the effectiveness of the fungicide combinations, nutrient management practices and growth regulators in different environments. They are able to evaluate the benefits and challenges each environment creates across Ontario. “The wide geographical range creates a good model for research,” says Rowsell. “The different climatic conditions re-create the conditions that farmers face across Ontario.”

Rowsell’s team includes Dr. Dave Hooker, field crop agronomist and professor at University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus; Dr. Ashraf Tubeilen, professor of agronomy at University of Guelph Kemptville Campus; Dr. Tarlock Singh Sahota, director of research and business at the Thunder Bay Agricultural Research Station; Peter Johnson, cereals specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA); and Scott Banks, emerging crops specialist with OMAFRA. 2010 marked the first growing season for the studies which will be continued again in 2011. The data will then be compiled and final results can be expected for release to Ontario farmers in 2013.

This project was funded in part through Growing Forward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of several Growing Forward programs in Ontario. Support for this project was also provided by Grain Farmers of Ontario. •