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Row upon row of fusarium

At this ‘nursery’ at Carman, Man., researchers simulate exactly the conditions wheat farmers fear — warm, humid and loaded with fusarium spores

It’s incredibly labour intensive,” says Anita Brûlé-Babel of the FHB screening process. She should know.

A professor at the University of Manitoba, Brûlé-Babel established the FHB screening nursery at the University’s Carman location back in 2001 and has managed it ever since.

“It’s much more efficient to do disease screening in a nursery like this, rather than have each breeder set up their own screening program,” she says. “And it’s much better to do it in an environment conducive to FHB because if you don’t have a good nursery with good infection, you don’t get reliable information.”

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The nursery serves public spring and winter wheat breeding programs across the West and Brûlé-Babel says it has three areas of focus: gathering fusarium susceptibility data for variety registration; conducting replicated research trials and screening breeding lines for FHB.

“This is early-generation material and each breeder has a quota as to the number of lines they put into the nursery,” says Brûlé-Babel. “They want to know what the reaction is to fusarium, we send them the data and they can decide what lines they want to keep in their programs and what lines to get rid of.”

“Gathering data” sounds simple enough, but think about this: in 2016, Brûlé-Babel and her team tested 25,000 individual lines in the FHB nursery. They are grown in single-row, one-metre-long plots, and for every 75 plots there is a block of five check varieties with known resistance levels (R, MR, intermediate, MS and S). “We make sure we’re evaluating against known standards,” she says.

“We grow the disease inoculum in the lab, measure the concentration of spores and use a backpack sprayer to inoculate plots,” says Brûlé-Babel. “We spray at flower and again three days later.”

To ensure conditions are perfect for disease development, the plots are mist irrigated — 10 minutes per hour for 12 hours — shortly after they’re treated. Plants are checked 18 to 21 days after inoculation and rated for disease incidence and severity, plus the team does DON and FDK analysis.

The work is constant — 25,000 lines and three seeding dates means plot rows are all heading and flowering at different times.

And the work is only increasing with more plots being added almost every year — a significant indicator as to how important the FHB nursery is to Canada’s wheat industry and why WGRF continues to fund the project. “They were the first funders of the co-ordinated nursery in 2001,” says Brûlé-Babel. “Without the consistent WGRF funding, this nursery wouldn’t exist.”

WGRF is a farmer-funded and -directed non-profit organization investing in agricultural research that benefits western Canadian producers. For 35 years the WGRF board has given producers a voice in agricultural research funding decisions. WGRF manages an Endowment Fund and the wheat and barley variety development check-off funds, investing over $19 million annually into variety development and field crop research. WGRF is the largest producer funder of research in Canada.

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