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Can Big/Weather data predict Fusarium Head Blight (FHB)?

By Shankar Das PAg, Regional Farm Business Specialist

Big data, farm data and weather data are being recognized as important information in production agriculture as technologies are becoming available to collect inexpensive, robust and accurate data more economically to help producers make better management decisions.

For example, this information in the form of weather data can be useful in managing Fusarium Head Blight (FHB), a nasty fungal disease, which caused considerable distress for farmers and the industry in the 2016 crop season.  

According to Gordon Harrison, President, Canadian National Millers Association, the 2016 Western Canada wheat harvest is the worst on record for FHB damage and DON (deoxynivalenol, a mycotoxin) levels in many crop districts. FHB damage is 1.5 to five times more than experienced in recent years. As a result, a significant portion of Canada Western Amber durum (CWAD) wheat harvest (used to make pasta) may be unmarketable as milling grade. No. 2 and 3 Canada Western Red Spring wheat (CWRS), which is Canada’s top bread-making wheat, also has high levels of DON. He concluded that downgrading could cost Prairie farmers $1 billion in lost revenue.

Historically, FHB pathogen has been causing disease in crops such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn, canary seed and forage grasses for many years. However, the crops that are most affected are wheat, barley and corn. First identified in England in 1884, fusarium head blight has been causing significant loss in eastern Canada and the United States for many years. The disease has now spread to Saskatchewan. It caused serious damage in 2012, 2014 and 2016 (see Canada Grain Commission website and Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture website for more information). In 2016, the highest incidence of FHB was observed in central, northern, northeastern, southwestern Saskatchewan, and as mentioned above, caused quite a distress both agronomically and economically. 

How is this disease being managed lately? FHB is a sporadic disease because of its high dependence on weather conditions (wet conditions and higher temperatures during flowering) and the infection must be controlled in advance of development. Also, since there are no resistant varieties for durum, and spring wheat varieties are moderately susceptible to the disease, the application of fungicides and crop rotations are frequently but cautiously recommended alone or in combinations. Agronomists also recommend to follow integrated pest management (IPM) approach for better control of the disease. However, the University of Saskatchewan plant pathologist, Randy Kutcher, says, the economics of farming, i.e. growing crops which are economically more attractive, limits/dictates the practice of crop rotation and application of chemicals.

Is there any approach or tool available to prevent the disease from occurring as opposed to a curative measure? SaskWheat, in partnership with Saskatchewan Agriculture and Weather INnovations Consulting (WIN), launched a weather-based FHB risk map in 2015. The purpose of the risk maps is to keep producers updated, in near-real-time, about the risk of FHB in wheat in their respective areas of the province so that they may best plan their management strategies. Figure 1 shows the glimpses of the weather maps which were observed in 2016.

The figure shows near-real time maps of the weather conditions in Saskatchewan during the months of June and July in 2016 indicating the risks of infection using colour coding: green for low, yellow for medium, and red for areas that have high risk for the disease. Farmers could use these prediction maps to determine the probability of the disease incidence and decide whether to apply fungicides or not.

Figure 1: 2016 Fusarium Head Blight Risk Maps. Spring Wheat, 2016 (June – July)

Dallas Carpenter of SaskWheat communicated that a similar map will go live again in early June and will run until late July (throughout the fusarium-susceptible periods for winter and spring wheat) for the 2017 crop year. WIN operates approximately 450 weather stations throughout the agricultural regions of Saskatchewan and uses internal resources for modelling and mapping, relying on its team of plant pathologists, agrologists, modellers, and IT/web specialists.

While the SaskWheat’s risk map, based on 450 weather stations, appears to be a very useful tool, some service providers also suggest, and in fact offer, high density weather data platform to farmers to collect data for weather conditions (such as moisture and temperature) for improved management decisions. For example, FarmersEdge has been offering a service called Field Centric WeatherTM data platform to collect the data for precision production agriculture and also to forecast the weather pattern more precisely. The service provider says that there is nearly a 48 per cent reduction in accuracy of weather stations when a farm is only 20 km away from a public weather station. FarmersEdge installs custom weather stations to collect data that is transferred wirelessly to cloud storage for further use. Using their platform, farmers can access 48-hour hourly forecasts.

 

However, whether these high density weather stations (in addition to public weather stations and SaskWheat’s weather risk maps) will be further useful for site-specific precision prediction of disease incidence such as FHB, remains to be seen.

It has been suggested by a group of researchers led by Marcia McMullen (a retired researcher from North Dakota State University) that a humidity and temperature threshold tool or a model called ‘FHB hours’ could be used to understand and predict the disease behaviour more accurately. The ‘FHB hours’ is based on the duration of hours that relative humidity is greater than 90 per cent when temperatures are between 15 and 30 degree Celsius for the 10 days after anthesis (flowering). If a field’s weather conditions satisfy the FHB hours, then it is likely that the conditions will favour FHB infection if the pathogen inocula are present in and around the field. However, the article does not say how many hours is the critical number as a threshold. Secondly, by the time these threshold numbers are collected and determined, the disease might have already spread its infection, which is too late for controlling the disease.

Inspired by this FHB hours model, I have collected some data from Environment Canada’s historical data sets and crunched the numbers to calculate the FHB hours based on the set criteria (Table 1). For example, the table shows that during the first two weeks of July 2016, high FHB hours were observed across three weather stations in the region where there was very high incidence as well as severity of FHB in 2016.  It would be interesting to find out if those FHB hours coincided with the flowering time of the host crops in 2016 for FHB infection and incidence to occur.

Table 1: FHB hours for July and August, 2016: Number of hours that show relative humidity more than 90% and temp between 15 - 30 degree Celsius for three weather stations every day for the months of July and 20 days of August, 2016.

July

Rosetown East

Outlook PFRA

Saskatoon Airport

August

Rosetown East

Outlook PFRA

Saskatoon Airport

1

0

0

0

1

3

0

0

2

0

0

0

2

8

6

3

3

8

7

11

3

8

7

2

4

2

3

1

4

1

0

0

5

0

0

0

5

0

0

0

6

0

0

0

6

0

0

1

7

3

1

3

7

0

0

2

8

16

15

22

8

0

2

1

9

5

8

1

9

1

8

1

10

11

7

12

10

7

10

8

11

4

3

6

11

9

16

15

12

0

2

4

12

8

16

14

13

0

0

0

13

1

0

2

14

0

0

6

14

0

0

3

15

1

1

7

15

0

0

0

16

1

0

1

16

0

0

1

17

3

6

5

17

0

0

2

18

0

0

0

18

0

2

1

19

0

0

0

19

0

8

4

20

0

0

10

20

0

0

7

TOTAL

54

53

89

21

0

0

3

22

3

2

2

23

7

11

11

24

0

0

0

25

2

2

3

26

0

0

0

27

0

0

0

28

0

0

1

29

7

9

7

30

1

2

7

31

9

3

9

TOTAL

75

104

110

 

For more information to follow and manage the disease for this upcoming season producers can consult SaskWheat’s weather risk maps for 2017. They might also like to collect and analyze their own weather data to understand and follow the disease. Producers can also contact the Ministry of Agriculture provincial plant disease specialists and cereal crops specialists who can provide further information on how to manage FHB.

 

For more information on Big Data, please contact Shankar Das, Regional Farm Business Specialist, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, at 306-867-5577.

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