Farmers mad about wheat streak mosaic

May 4, 2017

Credit Courtesy / Vance Ehmke

In one of the most severe and extensive wheat streak mosaic epidemics in untold years, western Kansas farmers are not happy. And they’re letting their attorneys, legislators and farm organizations know about.

Last week Jim Shroyer, K-State Extension wheat specialist emeritus, drove 100 miles through west central Kansas from Wallace County to our Lane County farm and said that about every third field was infected with this viral disease. While here, Jim and I drove about 6 miles north, one mile west and back 6 miles south to our farm. In that trip he said every field we passed was infected. Some of these fields will not be worth harvesting.

On Tuesday afternoon, Louise and I drove from here to Colby and also observed that about every second or third wheat field was yellowed from the disease.

And this is hardly a western Kansas problem. Both University of Nebraska and Oklahoma State University agronomists and pathologists report heavy viral disease pressure largely from wheat streak mosaic. Too, in central Kansas there is a lot of barley yellow dwarf virus which is another viral disease transmitted from uncontrolled volunteer wheat to the newly planted crop. Not only that, earlier this week, I got a call from a Montana farmer who credits his neighbors negligence in controlling volunteer with a $65,000 loss on his spring wheat. He was wondering what his legal recourse was.

KSU Extension plant pathologist Erick DeWolf further reports that wheat streak mosaic has been steadily moving eastward in Kanas. He explains that depending on when the new wheat crop got infected, yield loss can range from moderate to severe and can lead to a total loss and abandonment of the crop.

Like the Montana farmer, many Kansas farmers are quite unhappy with their neighbor’s negligence in controlling volunteer wheat. That volunteer wheat is the intermediate host for the viral disease and is transmitted to the newly planted wheat crop by a microscopic wind-blown wheat curl mite.

The solution to the problem is simple. Just kill the volunteer at least 2 weeks ahead of planting.

Rick Horton, Leoti KS, adds that losses from wheat streak mosaic aren’t limited to just this year’s yield loss. He notes that if a wheat yield of 70 bushels per acre is reduced to 20 or 30, the high number will not be averaged into your crop insurance yield history meaning you’ll have lower crop insurance protection for years into the future. Worse yet, the low number will be averaged in and will reduce the coverage even more.

He also points out one way farmers have to skirt problems with wheat streak mosaic is to plant later. But especially in years like last year, if you wait to plant, you run the risk of losing your topsoil moisture and coming up with a poor stand or no stand at all.

Consequently, Rick is in favor of taking action which could include writing laws to enable farmers to force their neighbors into controlling volunteer wheat. He says there is good precedent in ag law. “For instance, if my herbicides drift over onto a neighbor and harm his crops, I’m liable. Why shouldn’t I be liable if my wheat streak mosaic drifts over onto a neighbor?”

Noted ag law expert Roger McEowen says he has been inundated with calls and e-mails from area farmers asking what legal recourse they have against negligent neighbors who refuse to control their volunteer wheat. Roger says he has never seen so many people up in arms like this before.

McEowen points out that there are some legal remedies available through legislative action in Topeka. “I have been trying to make that point to the Kansas legislature for the past 20 years that they at least need to consider adding volunteer wheat to the noxious weed list.”

Once listed as a noxious weed, farmers would have some real teeth in forcing their neighbors to control their volunteer.

Kansas House of Representatives member Don Hineman, Dighton KS has expressed his concerns about the subject to the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture and has encouraged that department as well as the K-State Extension Service to dramatically step up their educational efforts to educate—and shame—farmers into doing the responsible thing voluntarily. He also proposes an industry-wide summit on the problem.

As far as legislative action, Don has some questions. “For instance, do we mandate everyone kill their volunteer wheat? If so, by what date? Would the law be statewide or apply only to western Kansas? How would we enforce the mandate, who would be responsible for enforcement and what would be the penalties?”

For sure, K-State is stepping up to the challenge. Romulo Lollato, Extension wheat specialist, and Erick DeWolf, plant pathologist, say K-State is well aware of the problem and is developing educational efforts to help solve the problem. K-State wheat breeders are also working with some exciting new lines of resistance to the disease, but they also concede that won’t help with the current epidemic.

The bottom line is that there are many solutions to this simple problem. But after this year’s widespread disaster, let’s get something done. Let’s move ahead on all fronts.

Vance and Louise Ehmke grow certified seed wheat in Lane County, Kansas.