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Hitchhiking pests

Yes, cleaning out equipment takes time, but it’s worth it

When it comes to discussing the scourge of weed management in Eastern Canada, much of the light has shone on herbicide-resistant Canada fleabane and its spread from Essex County to the Quebec border in just five years. The latest weed species that is cause for concern is common waterhemp. It’s been the topic of conversation in the U.S. for several years and it’s now an issue in Canada and particularly in Ontario.

A recent incident concerning common waterhemp came up during a workshop in central Ontario. A grower in Quebec had found the weed species in their field. Although first confirmed in the province in 2002, waterhemp’s spread has been confined to southwestern Ontario. Only in the past two growing seasons have reports of the weed’s migration increased, more often than not by crop advisors and dealers.

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What makes the Quebec incident more unfortunate is the suspicion that it arrived on equipment the grower had purchased in the U.S.

The subject of transporting weed seeds and disease pathogens is not new. It’s been in farm news headlines and at conferences, with advisors and agronomists spreading the word of the benefits of properly cleaning out equipment.

At a time when growers are counting every advantage, every benefit and every last kernel or bean in a bushel, there are still reports like this one, where unwanted pests are found ahead of what might be expected. Soybean cyst nematode is the more readily mentioned pest that is transported from one farm to another, usually on the wheels of a tractor, sprayer or combine.

Much of the issue surrounding so-called “hitchhiking” pests relates to time management. During the rush of tillage and planting or spraying and combining, few growers believe they have time to stop and clean their machinery. Instead, they’ll roll the dice and continue from one field to the next, understanding there are consequences, but opting for what’s perceived as maximum efficiency.

“You’re making a risk management decision and the risk is that I lose an hour of planting or tillage time or harvest time — in the case of weed seed — versus trying to limit the spread of a weed or a disease,” says Stephen Denys, director of business management with Maizex Seeds. “It’s almost a question of saying ‘I’ll take the risk of a transfer versus the time factor of having to stop.’”

The problem isn’t limited to weed seed and disease spores, though. Denys, who also farms northeast of Chatham, Ont., notes that use of the Xtend soybean system means residual amounts of dicamba-based herbicides may be deposited on sprayer tires and be transferred from one field to another, often with less-than-desired effects.

By any other name

Herbicide or fungicide residues add to the complexity of biosecurity and the different ways it can have an impact on a grower or farm-related business like a custom operator. Trevor Sonneveld has experience that spans both of those spheres, as a grower and part-time custom operator. Like Denys, Sonneveld maintains that growers get what they deserve, likening other decisions — like paying taxes or hydro bills — to being diligent about pest and material transfer.

“If you don’t clean out your combine, you have problems,” says Sonneveld, who is a technician and assistant service manager at C.L. Benninger in Chatham. “You live with the consequences no matter what actions you perform or convey. The problem is it takes time, so you either make time or you live with the challenges that come with it.”

Sonneveld speaks from first-hand experience: he brought glyphosate-resistant Canada fleabane from one of his fields between Chatham and Blenheim back to his home farm southeast of Ridgetown.

When he first started with an equipment dealership, he could spend upwards of two days cleaning out equipment that was heading to the U.S. On the other side, the U.S. sources seemed to be more stringent on sending machinery to Canada. But in the winter of 2007, Sonneveld recalls three combines that were purchased at auction in the U.S. and between the three, he estimates there was a total of 30 bushels of corn in the bins.

“The Canadian side wasn’t checking much of anything, and if they were, they obviously didn’t know where to look or what to look for,” Sonneveld says. The outside of the machine might be shiny and clean but that’s no guarantee against something unwanted on the inside. “The people who are policing or enforcing the regulations to allow things to come into the country are only as good as the people who are teaching them what to look for.”

From an information level, Sonneveld doesn’t believe the issue of biosecurity or cleaning equipment gets enough attention. Unlike other trends in agriculture where it’s been a prominent topic on conference agendas or workshop offerings — like precision agriculture or cover crops — biosecurity gets a refresher course every four or five years.

“Only those farmers who put that subject at the forefront carry it out,” he says, adding that most farmers know weed, herbicide or disease transfer is always a possibility — it’s always in the back of their mind. “They know something can be harmful to them in one way, shape or form, and that potentially, their yields and management practices can be threatened by what can be transmitted from field-to-field or from equipment-to-field.”

Familiarity breeds compliance

Sonneveld also speaks of the acceptance of biosecurity in other sectors of the agri-food industry. He’s seen it working with livestock at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus and also at Haren Yorkshires. There were protocols for those working with animals in the barn — “shower-in, shower-out” for workers, along with washing trucks before moving them back to the livestock barns. Most livestock producers, he says, are familiar with those protocols and have incorporated them into their management, making it part of their business.

“They’ve dealt more with biosecurity — they’ve had to rinse trucks out, rinse trailers out and disinfect,” he adds. “They’ve had to leave things on the road and create alternate routes for shipping their guaranteed production or their guaranteed disease-free production. Cash crop growers tend to look at it as one more thing to add to their list to do that they never really had to do before.”

The livestock sector has had to deal with biosecurity protocols for years along with greenhouse producers.
photo: File

But even that’s starting to change. According to Margaret May, biosecurity is a growing reality for everyone involved in agriculture, regardless of their particular sector. And it folds in along with traceability and sustainability, terms that have as much stigma attached to them as an assurance.

“Consumers want to know that you’re doing all you can to produce a safe product or a clean product,” says May, regional program lead with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). “The greenhouse industry is used to this — if you’re a propagator, you have to be sure that what you’re selling is free from disease and free from pests. As a receiver, I have to have a designated spot to let it sit for a few days so that I know there aren’t any bugs crawling out of it — and we have to go the same route with field crops.”

May co-ordinates OSCIA programs for biosecurity measures, including courses that provide cost-share funding (60 per cent federal, 40 per cent provincial) for equipment that can be used for cleaning farm machinery. Under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), farmers can apply for money under the Protection and Assurance pillar of the program (the other two pillars are Economic Development and Environmental Stewardship). Protection and Assurance includes food safety, traceability, biosecurity, animal welfare, and plant health. It also applies to those commodities that have a national biosecurity standard.

“Grains and oilseeds and greenhouse producers have national biosecurity standards,” explains May, noting there is a process to this like all other CAP funding programs. “You need to take the workshop, you need to assess your business against the biosecurity code, identify where your gaps are and what you’re going to do to remedy those. Maybe it’s to build a wash bay or buy a hot water-pressure washer so that you can clean and disinfect equipment. Or if you’re a custom operator moving from one field to another or even from one farm to another knowing there’s pressure in one field that you don’t want in another field, that’s the process.”

Garnering an endorsement from a trained certified crop advisor (CCA) also gives an application merit. Those who take a workshop have access to a list of CCAs who agree to advise and make recommendations on applications, so as May says, it’s a fairly simple process to follow. The CCAs will spend the time to go over the applications so all that’s left to the grower is to follow the steps.

It’s part of the protection assurance and it’s part of society’s or the end-user’s request for assurance through the system by which their product is produced.

“Adhering to a biosecurity standard is part of it, but it’s not necessarily as popular for the plant industry as it has been for the livestock sector,” says May, who believes growers are part of a changing paradigm where biosecurity is concerned. “We are starting to see, with the influence of some of these resistant weeds, if you can stop them before they get to you, that is by far the easiest method of management.”

More research is welcome

Other issues can get in the way of reducing the spread of hitchhiking weed seeds, disease pathogens and herbicide residues. A grower or custom operator can drive a sprayer or combine back to the shop for a cleanout, or a cleaning service can go to a selected location and perform the cleanout for a cost. Either way, it means the job of the day — planting, tilling, spraying or combining — is put on hold.

What would help even more —beyond providing more information, says Denys — is more research.

“What’s missing is the research that says you can limit the spread of cyst nematode by ‘x’ per cent if you clean off your equipment,” Denys says, acknowledging the difficulty of conducting such replicated trials.

May confirms that OSCIA’s research arm is also concerned. “It makes sense for the producer, so soil and crop is concerned on both sides.”

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