Rick Cartwright is beginning to feel a little like the Maytag repairman. Cartwright, a plant pathologist for the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas, would normally be busy this time of year advising county agents and farmers how to fight diseases in the wheat crop. About a dozen diseases can be a problem in Arkansas wheat, but they’re almost a no-show this season.
"This is the cleanest, most disease-free wheat crop I’ve ever seen. It’s really depressing," Cartwright says with a laugh. "The only disease in the state of any significance is on Gary Huitink’s no-till test plots at Keiser in Mississippi County." Huitink is an Arkansas Extension agricultural engineer.
Cartwright suspects the weather has a lot to do with it. He said helpful weather factors include a dry fall, a cold winter and a relatively warm, dry spring, so far. "That has reduced our fungicide use down to a livable level," he said.
Cartwright has detected some septoria leaf blotch in wheat, but it’s low on affected plants so it’s not really a problem. There was a small problem with soilborne virus diseases earlier in the season, but during the current warm spell, the wheat has grown out of it.
What a difference a year makes, Cartwright noted.
"We had a major stripe rust epidemic in April last year. The contrast between last year and this year is pretty dramatic. So far, we haven’t had any type of rust reported in Arkansas. Last year, stripe rust affected 250,000 to 300,000 acres of wheat."
Last year’s wheat crop as a whole was a bin-buster, despite disease, Cartwright said. He said William Johnson, Arkansas Extension wheat agronomist, thinks the yields this year may be off about 10 percent because of rain in February. A few farmers have plowed up their wheat.
"The one blessing is that farmers probably won’t have to use a fungicide. Last year, Arkansas farmers used a record amount of fungicide. The cheapest, effective fungicide costs $14 an acre with application. At $2.50 a bushel, farmers have to make good yields to make up for that expensive input."
Farmers this year have also been hammered by high nitrogen fertilizer costs. Last year, farmers were paying about $150 a ton. This year, prices have risen to $250 to $270 a ton. Add to that high diesel costs, and this year’s wheat crop becomes costly to produce.
Cartwright said the Extension Service is trying to save farmers money everywhere it can. "We’re looking at when to use fungicides, and, if you use them, what’s the appropriate rate under the conditions and situation? In many cases, we elect not to use them at all. Then, there are situations later in the season where we have evidence that we can use lower rates than the label calls for and cut the cost in half.
"It’s just a common sense approach. Ford Baldwin [Arkansas Extension weed scientist] has been using this approach for years with herbicides."
Cartwright said last year’s reduced-rate work looks promising. It’s being repeated this year, but hampered somewhat by the fact that this is such a low disease pressure. Extension will probably make recommendations on reduced rates when it has two good years of data.
Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.