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Farmers Ponder Future With Soy Rust

posted on December 17, 2004

When it was limited to other hemispheres, the problem of Asian soybean rust for U.S. farmers surely must have seemed remote. But the arrival of the fungus on U.S. shores was inevitable ... and the warnings from the American scientific community grew louder as that day approached.

Now, it's here. And the rapid spread of the disease has been startling. While much of the talk has been on the long-term impact of soy rust, of more immediate concern to farmers is the agronomic management of the 2005 crop. John Nichols explains.


Farmers Ponder Future With Soy Rust

Though it's always a guessing game, the act of projecting U.S. planting intentions will be especially tough this coming spring. That's because farmers are carefully weighing their options, given the rapid spread of Asian soybean rust.

Scientists believe the disease came to U.S. shores last fall, carried by the high winds of Hurricane Ivan. In fact, the extent to which the disease already has spread seems to mirror the areas reached by Ivan's powerful winds. To date, soy rust has been found in nine states, from the Mississippi Delta to Coastal Carolina to as far north as Missouri.

The anticipation of the spread of Asian soy rust already has been factored into the markets. The price of November '05 beans at the Chicago Board of Trade jumped more than 50 cents in three weeks' time after the discovery of the disease at a research farm in Louisiana. And though prices since have settled back, traders still are anticipating smaller crops for 2005.

For farmers, it's back to school for lessons in plant pathology. Scientists have been watching the spread of the disease in South America and say they should be prepared to confront it here in the States.

Greg Tylka, Plant Pathologist, Iowa State University: "We've been planning for this ... for the past two years. And we hoped that we wouldn't have to spring into action for another year or two, but we feel fairly well prepared and we knew this day would come at some point."

Based on the South American experience, here's what scientists are telling U.S. farmers to do:

--One, learn how to identify the disease, which can be difficult to do in its early stages. The fungus begins as small lesions on the lower leaves of the plant that increase in size and change from gray to reddish brown on the underside of the leaves. According to some, soy rust in its early stages can resemble spider mite or brown spot.

--Two, learn about fungicides -- their ingredients and their efficiency. Brazilian farmers who've grown used to spraying fungicides say spraying immediately after detection is essential to cutting crop loss.

David Wright, Iowa Soybean Association: "There isn't a whole lot of time between identification of soybean rust and treatment to minimize yield loss."

--Three, learn the critical times for scouting soybean fields. The plants are most vulnerable from the flowering to pod fill stages, and scouting on a daily basis may be necessary. At other times during the growing season, fields should be scouted at least twice a week.

--And four, select soybean acreage carefully. Asian rust thrives in moist, humid weather between 68 and 77 degrees. Plants in low-lying and near wooded or shaded areas are especially vulnerable.

Greg Tylka, Plant Pathologist, Iowa State University: "The 2004 growing season would have been a wonderful year for rust 'cause we had fairly moderate temperatures and lots of moisture. If 2005 is a hot, dry year for Iowa, or the upper Midwest, the soybean belt, rust will have much less impact than if the weather in 2005 is moist and cool again."

Tylka and other scientists are encouraging farmers to attend as many field days are seminars as possible. He notes the wind-borne disease has cut yields by as much as 80 percent in some countries, so it's essential for farmers to arm themselves with information.

For instance, additional fungicide expenses could cost growers up to $25 per acre to control the disease. It's estimated Brazilian farmers spent $350 million this year battling soy rust ... and will spend upwards of $500 million next year.

But it's not just increased input costs that are worrisome to farmers. According to the Iowa Soybean Association, losses due to soybean rust could reach into the billions of dollars.

Again, South America provides an example. In Brazil last year, the fungus destroyed 4.7 million metric tons, or about 172 million bushels. And the arrival in Argentina of the fast-spreading disease has come even earlier this year, leading some to speculate that damage amounts might increase there.

North of the border, it's difficult to know how widespread the impact will be. Only time will tell.

For Market To Market, I'm John Nichols.


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