2020 has been a year for the record books for everyone, agriculturalists notwithstanding. With volatile markets plaguing the industry, optimism has been difficult to find at times. One positive thing many Montana producers are thankful for this year is the fact conditions have been quite good for small grain production, especially wheat.

It is refreshing for growers to see things so well right now, especially since fall harvest in 2019 bordered on being a nightmare for some. Unfavorable weather conditions stretched winter wheat harvest on and early snowstorms in September and October left fields too wet for planting.

The preceding fall’s uncooperative weather has left production levels a little off from normal for 2020. According to the USDA’s Montana Crop Production Report, as of Aug. 1, winter wheat production is down an estimated 21 percent from 2019. The report estimates about 75.40 million bushels (MB) of winter wheat is forecasted to be harvested in Montana this year.

Planters may not have been able to get into the field this fall, but farmers couldn’t have asked for a much more perfect spring of 2020. As a result, spring wheat production across Montana is up an estimated 12 percent with 114 MB expected at harvest.

Progressing along throughout the growing season, conditions were pretty favorable, which made for an average disease year overall, according to Dr. Mary Burrows, director of MSU’s Shutter Diagnostic Lab. With more spring wheat being planted into what normally would have been winter wheat acres, Montana producers have seen an influx in wheat streak mosaic virus and heavy blasts of moisture in mid-summer did seem to cause some other disease issues, as well, but nothing more than could be expected.

“It was a good crown rot year. We had a lot of Fusarium crown rot,” Burrows said.

More notable then crown rot for this year, however, is Fusarium head blight, also known as “scab.” The fungi-sourced disease effects corn and cereal grains. Scab is harbored in crop residue, particularly corn. When weather becomes conducive, which usually means high relative humidity or moisture, spores are released.

Crops in the flowering stage are most susceptible to the disease because the spore lands on the head, spreading either up or down from the initial point of infection. Heavy moisture in the two weeks preceding flowering is commonly a recipe for a scab epidemic.

“If you have moisture during your flowering and you have a lot of inoculum, it can lead to scab and it has been kind of a wet year,” Burrows said.

One of the biggest issues with scab, Burrows explained, is the fact it causes the diseased portion of the plant to produce a mycotoxin known as deoxynivalenol or DON, which can be harmful to both humans and animals. The specific end product the wheat is destined for determines the acceptable mycotoxin threshold. Nevertheless, discovery of scab in a stand of wheat is less than ideal.

“Scab can be subtle, so some growers may look at it and think it is something else until they go to sell their grain and they get it tested and find out there is DON in it,” Burrows added.

Management of scab is multifaceted, there is no single action or magic cure for it. Planting more resistant cultivars combined with tillage is one way to prevent scab. Burrows advises growers to try and avoid planting wheat into corn residue, as well.  

Burrows concluded by expressing that 2020 was a fairly normal disease year for small grains in Montana. The state is right in the thick of harvest right now and with any luck, conditions hopefully will continue to hold.