Cotton-Flower-1 Brad Haire

Enough bad news, here’s some good news for row-crop farmers

“You fear-mongering !@#$%^&.” Those words still sting as I recall my introduction to an entomologist from another southern university.

“You fear-mongering !@#$%^&.” Those words still sting as I recall my introduction to an entomologist from another southern university. Spoken in half jest more than 10 years ago, his words were in response to warnings about the threat from soybean rust -- a threat never fully realized. 

I write this in mid-December as I listen to rain finally beating against my windows. It is a time when my home is filled with reminders of the hope and good-will of Christmas. A nativity scene from my parents, stockings hung by the fireplace and a tree brightly lit and decorated with crafts made by my children from their earliest days in school.  By the time you read this, we may have already entered the New Year; but the hope and anticipation for what 2017 will bring will cheer us then as well.  No matter the day or the year, our farmers have earned and deserve some good news. 

When it comes to pest management, we in Extension often focus on the threats and warnings for what could happen if growers are not ready. However, as I have quickly learned in writing this piece, it is much more difficult to offer good news. This is, in part, because it is so important for growers to anticipate and to be prepared for problems. 

But there may also be some innocent truth in the words from my colleague over a decade ago. Truth that because I am a plant pathologist, the threat of diseases and nematodes affecting your crop may keep me from seeing that things are not all that bad, and likely much better, than they were in the past. In times like this, the Christmas Season, it is good to step back and appreciate the successes that have been achieved.

Here’s the good news for our row-crop growers:

  • Even though diseases and nematodes are a constant threat to our peanut, corn, cotton, soybean and wheat crops and they do cause devastating losses in a few fields each year, these maladies do not typically endanger the future of our row-crop production. As far as I can tell, the impact of tomato spotted wilt on peanut in the late 1990’s was the last real threat to a crop on a regional scale.  Fusarium wilt on cotton is very difficult to control, but we are improving our management options and the disease is not widely distributed at this point.  Bacterial blight and target spot diseases were problematic in some cotton fields this past season; however effective control options do exist.  Protecting a crop may not be easy, but yield can be preserved in spite of diseases and nematodes by integrating production practices, variety selection and judicious use of fungicides and nematicides.
  • Some very good news for row-crop growers is that they have an ever increasing selection of varieties with improved resistance to important diseases and nematodes. Though our varieties are often not “immune” to a disease or nematode, they are better able to withstand damage and to resist infection than are the susceptible varieties.  Equally important, these more-resistant varieties have yield potential increasingly on-par with susceptible varieties.  By selecting more-resistant varieties, growers can realize three benefits.  First, less damage from a disease or nematode can translate into increased yield.  Second, more resistance can lead to reduced use of fungicides and nematicides, thus increasing profitability.  Lastly, use of resistant varieties can reduce the build-up of pathogens and nematodes in a field.  As we enter the 2017 season, I believe that nematode-resistant varieties will be particularly important in cotton and peanuts and possibly in soybeans.  Resistance to bacterial blight, frogeye leaf spot, northern corn leaf blight and tomato spotted wilt will be of significant value to cotton, soybean, corn and peanut growers, respectively.  For more information, growers should contact their local Extension and their seed dealers.
  • Growers continue to receive “good news” as the current arsenal of fungicides, and some that are likely to be available in the future, has never been more robust. We not only have access to older “generic” chemistries appropriate for “lower risk” situations, but also to a number of new products.  Growers can battles diseases and manage resistance issues using not only protectant fungicides like chlorothalonil, but also active ingredients from three different classes, to include DMI/triazoles, QoI/strobiuruns, and SDHIs.  Access to these very different products allows for more effective disease management by attacking the pathogens from four different angles; it also allows us to prolong the “life-span” of the fungicides before resistance occurs. 

I learn from growers every day just how difficult it can be to farm and remain profitable. Managing pests, like diseases and nematodes, can be frustrating, time-consuming and costly. However, the good news is that for nearly every disease or nematode encountered in the field, growers have management strategies, to include resistant varieties, disease-limiting production practices, fungicides and nematicides. While not always cheap or convenient, we have the strategies and tactics today needed to protect our row crops.

That is good news and something to be thankful for.

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