Original Published on Sep 24, 2022 at 08:46
By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
After a growing season that saw an increase of flea beetles harming canola crops in Westman, a new initiative by the federal government seeks to work with experts and producers to save crops from pests, weeds and diseases.
With harvest well underway, Bill Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said this is the time of year when farmers can gauge how big of an effect pests, weeds and diseases have had on their crops.
Initially, flea beetles caused a “significant concern” when canola crops started to emerge, Campbell said. “They seemed to be very persistent in doing a significant amount of damage to seedling canola.”
The greater presence of flea beetles is an “increasing problem” that producers are trying to stay on top of via pesticide use, Campbell said, but it’s possible that a resistance to pesticides could be one of the reasons for the surge in pests.
“I think that we have seen a different species that’s populating itself significantly,” Campbell said. “There can be some suspicion of resistance to certain (pesticides).”
According to the Manitoba Agriculture website, flea beetles attack canola, mustard and rapeseed. The small, oval-shaped insects are less than 2.5 millimetres long. Each species of flea beetle has a single generation per year. In the spring, adult flea beetles who overwinter emerge to feed on canola seedlings, while during the fall their offspring feed on canola leaves, stems and seed pods.
The government advises producers and agronomists to monitor and assess flea beetle damage on the first leaves and stems of canola in the spring and continue to assess the plants every few days. Flea beetle densities should be noted in the fall, which can indicate potential problems the following spring.
Grasshoppers became more of an issue as the season progressed, Campbell said, though not to the same level as flea beetles.
“We started to see an increase in the numbers of grasshoppers … where there was pretty good growth of crops and pastures this year.”
It’s important for farmers to know the difference between pest and non-pest grasshoppers, since there are a total of 65 species of grasshoppers in Manitoba. According to the province, there are four species of grasshoppers on the Prairies that, when populations get high enough, can become pests for crops. These include the migratory, twostriped, clearwinged and Packard grasshoppers. Pests of this species tend to increase rapidly during years of warm, dry weather.
In regions along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary, which experienced more precipitation this year, there was an increase in wheat midge, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada reported.
Wheat midge have historically caused “significant damage” to wheat crops in Manitoba, the Manitoba Agriculture website says. Most wheat varieties are susceptible to the pest, but a growing number of midge-tolerant variety blends of wheat are now available.
The federal agriculture department says concerns about flea beetles, grasshoppers, wheat midge and other pests is the driving force behind its new initiative called the Prairie Biovigilance Network.
The network is the result of the work of Brent McCallum, a department research scientist from the Morden Research and Development Centre, and a team of experts in plant diseases, insects, weeds, economics, and soil management and crop production.
The term “biovigilance” describes an innovative, multidisciplinary approach to understanding the negative effects of newly introduced pests, new agricultural farming practices, new crops and the impact of climate change on plant health, the department’s website says.
The goal of the network, McCallum told the Sun, is to improve the department’s capacity to protect crops by dealing with pests before they become a problem.
McCallum said the network works closely with producers to understand problems in the field, how pest populations are changing and what can be done using chemical control, crop breeding for resistance, and other strategies like tillage or crop rotation.
This involves constant monitoring by the agriculture department to see which control measures work and how the pest populations respond to each measure. It’s a collaborative approach that works hand-in-hand with producers, McCallum said, noting the department needs farmers’ permission to access fields to understand what is happening with their crops.
While producer engagement in the network has been positive, McCallum said, it’s important to spread the word about how the department can help farmers deal with pests, weeds and diseases.
“There’s fewer producers on the farms all the time, and they’re very busy people, so it’s good for them to have the awareness that this is important and that they have help from people like us that are trying to understand these problems and trying to give them tools to control them as well.”
McCallum said some of the concerns he has heard from farmers echo Campbell’s, including whether pests are developing a resistance to certain pesticides and whether some weeds are becoming herbicide-resistant as well.
Fusarium head blight, a fungal cereal disease that affects wheat, barley, oats, rye and triticale, has also been a problem this year, McCallum said.
Some producers have been sending samples of wheat leaves for the network to check for disease, McCallum said, adding grower participation in the network is vital.
By the end of 2026, the network hopes to develop a communications network with producers, the department website said.