The signs instructing you to check in at the office and to put disposable booties on over your shoes are no longer just for when you visit hog and poultry farms — biosecurity measures are also becoming a feature for crop farms, for which the list of potential threats may be even longer.
On its website, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) defines biosecurity as “a series of management practices designed to prevent, minimize, and control the introduction, spread, and release of plant pests, which include insects, nematodes, weeds, molluscs, bacteria, fungi, and viruses.”
With diseases like fusarium and clubroot spreading on the Prairies, and a growing list of herbicide-resistant weeds appearing in farm fields, biosecurity will likely soon be a daily part of the production routine for many Canadian grain farmers.
“Biosecurity is becoming increasingly important because we’re seeing the emergence of diseases that are spread (in soil, water or crop residues),” says Lee Anne Murphy, CEO of Pest Surveillance Initiative (PSI), which was established in 2013 to provide DNA-based testing for crops after clubroot was first found in Manitoba.
Although producers can choose varieties resistant to many diseases, when those diseases evolve quickly there is a risk of losing genetic resistance as a tool, which can be costly.
“The worst thing must be questioning, ‘if only five years ago I had stopped traffic from going down that lane or down into that field, could I have saved myself money?’” Murphy says. “Making biosecurity an economic issue rather than just an issue of stewardship makes it much easier for people to be proactive about implementing it.”
Ontario agrologist Bill Ungar was practising biosecurity on his own farm before the concern became as prevalent as today, and he now teaches courses on biosecurity to Ontario producers. His advice is to treat biosecurity as part of the business plan.
“Just as we review the business plan every quarter or every month, we should be reviewing the biosecurity plan,” he says. “Biosecurity can affect crop quality and quantity, operational values and return on investment.”
Ungar describes biosecurity as “maintaining plant health… Biosecurity starts in your mind with questions like ‘what can I do to protect the health of my crops? What can I do to protect or mitigate the potential of a disease coming in and affecting my profitability, stability and security?’”
The trend toward higher-value crops on the Prairies is also driving the need to improve biosecurity. “With the advent of corn and soybeans coming to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, to get decent yields producers may have to do more babying in some scenarios, which means more times in the field and more potential for pest issues,” Ungar says. “It all boils back down to profitability. The more producers can do to protect plant health and crop health, the better off they’re going to be because they are maintaining yield potential.”
Putting it into practice
The first step for producers is to be aware of the voluntary national biosecurity standards that provide recommendations for developing on-farm biosecurity protocols. Grain farmers can find the National Voluntary Farm-Level Biosecurity Standard for the Grains and Oilseeds Industry on CFIA’s website.
In Alberta and Saskatchewan, these standards are part of the provincial disease act and are compulsory for producers to follow, but they are voluntary in Manitoba.
“Regulations and acts are great, but there also needs to be common sense behind them, so if producers have a pest they’ve never seen before, or there’s a new disease or weed in their area, they should be taking measures on their own farm to make sure that if they see it, they get rid of it or develop ways to manage it,” says Anastasia Kubinec, manager of crop industry development with Manitoba Agriculture.
Ungar says controlling access to the farm is the number one consideration in a biosecurity plan. “The first question I ask producers is ‘how many approaches do you have to your farm and fields? Are they controlled, for example, with a locked gate or a sign?’”
The problem with large acreages in Western Canada is that there are often no fences or gates, but Ungar says that doesn’t mean those fields need to be open to everyone.
“If you own a section, each quarter could potentially have a couple of approaches, so you might have eight access points. If you can close down one of those approaches and only have one approach to get in and out of the section, that’s your first step in controlling access and mitigating the risk.”
Putting up a sign that says the field or property is now under a biosecurity protocol and visitors must contact the owner or farm manager is another simple way to prevent or limit unauthorized access, because it’s vital that producers know exactly who is tramping around their property and what potential risks they may bring.
“Even on the home quarter, where your house, shop, barns, bins or whatever are, access should be down to a single entry point where you have to come in and go out again with a biosecurity sign saying who to contact,” Ungar says.
There should also be a designated parking spot for anyone coming onto the property, whether it’s the home quarter or a field with no buildings, and farmers should expect visitors to respect protocols and take measures to adhere to them.
“When the neighbour comes over for a visit, they still should use the designated parking — they shouldn’t be running out to the bin yard or the back 40 because you’re working there — you don’t know where that person has been prior,” Ungar says.
Ungar carries items such as disposable coveralls and booties, spray disinfectant and a dedicated pair of rubber boots (in a disinfectant tray) in his pickup truck. He recommends farmers do too.
“If you’ve got someone that’s going to walk around your bin area, or storage facilities or whatever, offer them plastic booties,” he says, adding a farmer should never be slow to insist that everyone take the same precautions that he or she does.
On his own farm, Ungar used to have a pair of rubber boots that he left at the farm and changed into when he got there and out of to go home. He says it’s a simple measure that prevents a lot of risk, adding this simple protocol should extend to everyone, even family. “Everybody needs to understand this,” he says. “Dad may think it’s a pain in the butt to take his boots off to run to town but it’s protecting your bottom line.”
Keep it clean
When the agronomist comes to the farm, if possible either use the farmer’s truck or equipment to go into the field, or if they must use their own vehicle, make sure they clean it off first, says Ungar. “In situations where I have to take my truck into the field I will ask the farmer for a power washer to wash my truck,” he says. “Then I take my disinfectant and spray my inside wheel wells, and because it takes 10 minutes to be effective I will chat with the farmer for that time and then we can go.”
There will always be situations where someone else’s equipment such as a custom sprayer, seeder or combine needs to come onto a producer’s land. In that case it is vital to make sure it’s cleaned before it enters the farm and after it leaves, and also from field to field. “You have the right to insist because it’s your crop,” Ungar says. “Ask custom applicators to come in with clean equipment. If they are switching over from wheat and coming to your place to do canola, ask them to blow everything off the combine, and run the combine for three or four extra minutes to make sure that everything is cleaned out of it.”
Kubinec says producers should not expect a custom applicator to clean to a higher level than they would themselves. “It’s important for a producer to establish what they themselves are going to do and then what they expect from that custom work that’s going to be done.”
Take 10 minutes
There are many things that farmers can do themselves to prevent the spread of disease, weeds and pests by equipment, starting with taking an extra 10 minutes just to knock off mud before heading to the next field. Cleaning mud off equipment is particularly important to reduce the risk of soil-borne pests such as soybean cyst nematode, which is endemic in Eastern Canada where soybeans have been part of the rotation for much longer than on the Prairies.
A portable water tank and gas-powered pressure washer mounted on the farm truck or a converted bale wagon is another relatively inexpensive biosecurity measure. Ungar also knows some producers who have purchased backpack blowers to blow grain dust off the combine or grain truck between fields. “It may take an extra 15 minutes but it gives those producers peace of mind to know they aren’t spreading stuff from field to field.”
With custom spray applicators, and also for time-stressed farm operators or employees rushing to get a job done, there is also the risk of crop injury from chemical product carryover if time isn’t taken to clean out the tanks as thoroughly as possible.
“Backing up to a fence line, throwing a flush button and letting it flush for a minute and then taking off to the next field is not good enough sometimes, depending on what the chemical is,” says Ungar. “Say you’re going from a wheat field to a soybean field. If you don’t do a tank wash and flush the booms properly, you could have a minute trace of some other pesticide that might not kill the soybeans but still could physically damage them, and now that’s a vector for disease to come in.”
Effective on-farm biosecurity tools
Vigilance is one of the most effective tools in the biosecurity arsenal. Kubinec says it’s important for producers and their agronomists to inspect fields regularly and look out for diseases or other issues while they are still manageable.
“One thing we really encourage producers to do is if they see a part of their field that’s dying or is really weedy and the crop just really hasn’t established, they need to go and figure out why, and not just assume that it was a wet spot or an overlap of herbicide or a saline spot,” she says.
“Go and figure out why that crop looks different, why the rest of the crop is green and that’s yellow, or there’s nothing there and there’s weeds. Walking the fields is the first step and identifying something that just doesn’t seem right.”
Certified seed offers producers some guarantee of quality and peace of mind.
“Certified seed is clean and it’s been tested for diseases, so when producers buy it they have that confidence,” Kubinec says. “If producers are buying bin-run seed, they should probably talk to the producer who produced it about whether they have done a disease screen and what is the germination. There’s not as much confidence there about the quality of the seed and also the pests that it could be bringing in.”
Crop rotation is an important tool for reducing risk by maintaining resistance in crop varieties, especially for diseases that are long-lived in soil, such as clubroot.
“After three to four years of no host crop — canola or any of the mustard species — the population of clubroot in the soil goes down very quickly,” says Kubinec. “It can live up to 20 years in the soil, but in Manitoba we’ve done some tests with some of the first producer fields where we found galls, and when we went back and tested three years after, and the producer did not have canola in those three years, it had dropped by 90 per cent in the soil.”
Sending pictures of suspicious weeds to agronomists or provincial weed experts is often a quick way to get a positive identification, but if there is a weed issue, whether it’s as a result of herbicide resistance or something new, a plant tissue sample will be needed for analysis at some point.
In the meantime, mowing is one of the best ways to control small patches of weeds. “Before they flower is a great short-term measure to give you a bit of time to figure out what to do,” Kubinec says.
Although weed seeds are destroyed by composting manure, producers should be aware that it doesn’t kill pathogens, so they need to avoid spreading manure that could be contaminated with disease. Pastures can also be infected with clubroot.
“Producers do need to be cognizant that there can be clubroot in pastures,” Kubinec says. “If you have a field that’s full of clubroot, taking alfalfa off it may not be the best plan (because the disease can get caught up in dirt or pods that pass though the digestive tract of cattle and end up infecting other pastures or fields). Maybe you could be taking hay off of it that you’re not going to get some of that dirt in it or take really careful measures not to have any transfer.”
Where to find help
PSI has an excellent online calculator based on the CFIA national biosecurity standards and helps recommend practices suitable for a particular operation based on a series of questions.
“It produces a report and says, based on your answers, these are the areas where we can see you may have risk, and you maybe should be looking at some of the activities that you are doing, or some of the activities that you are willing to do or others are doing for you to see if you can reduce your risk,” Kubinec says. “It’s a great tool and quick. In 10 minutes you’re done.”
All provinces publish disease, insect and weed maps that are designed to let producers know what is in their area. Kubinec also suggests producers speak with local input suppliers, agronomists and neighbours as a way to learn what they may need to watch out for.
“Twitter is great for that, but for producers who aren’t into Twitter, talking to people in the area and saying ‘hey, what have you heard, what should I be worried about?’ is a good way to stay informed,” she says.