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Rain promotes head scab outbreak in Kansas wheat
Farm Scene Kansas W 5011414
Wheat stand ready for harvest in a field near Hazelton, Kan., Wednesday, June 18, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    WICHITA, Kan. — Untimely rainfall has led to an epidemic of a toxic fungal disease in some fields of winter wheat, reducing yields and quality just as harvest gets under way in the nation’s breadbasket, industry experts say.
    Low levels of Fusarium head blight, also known as ‘‘head scab,’’ are not uncommon in grain crops. But this season the disease appears to be widespread, particularly in Kansas where rain fell this spring when winter wheat was flowering.
    Some scab also has been reported in Missouri and north-central Oklahoma. The extent of infestation in northern wheat-producing states may not be known until those crops reach maturity.
    ‘‘Based on past yield loss estimates, this is going to represent a total loss to Kansas wheat production of 1 or 2 percent,’’ said Erick DeWolf, a plant pathologist at Kansas State University. ‘‘It is not trivial, but it is not the end of the world, either.’’
    That represents a potential yield loss worth $50 million for Kansas farmers, based on a forecast of production and current wheat prices, said Mike Woolverton, a grain marketing economist at Kansas State.
    Another economic impact that is difficult to quantify is the hit farmers will take when they take their crop to a local grain elevator, where loads infected with the Fusarium fungus would be heavily docked in price or refused outright, Woolverton said.
    Nothing can be done at this point in the growing season to prevent or cure head scab. The last major outbreak in the state was in 1993.
    High concentrations of Fusarium fungus microtoxins can sicken humans and livestock.
    ‘‘There are very strict limits on how much is allowed in wheat and wheat flour,’’ said Doug Jardine, a plant pathologist at Kansas State. ‘‘If it exceeds those tolerance levels they can’t use it. If the levels may be too high for human consumption it can be used as livestock feed. But it also gets to the point it may be too high to feed livestock, then the grower doesn’t have any way to get rid of it.’’
    Fields in eastern Kansas are among the worst affected, with the incidence of the disease ranging from 10 percent and 20 percent, DeWolf said. That could mean yield losses in some of those fields at 40 percent to 50 percent.
    Head scab is less prevalent in the state’s major wheat production counties. In south-central Kansas, the Fusarium incidence is 2 percent to 5 percent, said Bill Spiegel, spokesman for Kansas Wheat, a joint venture of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers and the Kansas Wheat Commission. The incidence is similar in central Kansas but western Kansas appears to be relatively untouched.
    ‘‘In a nutshell, I don’t want people to get too alarmed about this, because there is still a lot of good wheat in the state,’’ Spiegel said.
    The National Agricultural Statistics Service rated wheat condition in Kansas on Monday as 24 percent poor to very poor. About 33 percent of the wheat is in fair condition, with 37 percent rated good and 6 percent excellent. Wheat can have up to 2 percent damaged kernels and still grade No. 1 quality, the agency said.
    The cool, wet weather has also delayed the start of the Kansas harvest. Just 2 percent of the state’s winter wheat has been harvested, compared with 13 percent for the five-year average, the National Agricultural Statistics Service said Monday.
    In Oklahoma, about 59 percent of the winter wheat crop has been harvested, and 51 percent of the Texas crop is in the bin.

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