Wheat virus causes Kansas farmers to lose $76.8M

Amy Bickel
Associated Press
Wheat streak mosaic virus.

TOPEKA, KS (AP) - Last week, Hamilton County farmer Jason Ochs was already out in his sprayer, doing what he hopes others in the region are doing this time of year.
He was taking care of his volunteer wheat.

The Kansas wheat industry is estimating the wheat streak mosaic virus caused a conservative $76.8 million in direct losses to wheat farmers this year — about 19.2 million bushels of wheat.

And the cause, experts say, could have been largely prevented if more farmers were doing what Ochs does each August - killing the volunteer wheat, which is the greatest risk for the spread of the virus.

Ochs estimated 40 to 50 percent of his county's wheat acreage wasn't harvested due to wheat streak mosaic.

The volunteer problem, in fact, has been bad enough that Kansas Wheat launched its Stop the Streak campaign in July aimed at educating farmers about the virus and how it is spread.

"I hope people realize we won't have a community if we don't work together and try to solve this problem," Ochs, a Kansas Wheat commissioner, told The Hutchinson News . "We aren't trying to tell people how to farm, but we want people to understand the consequences and how we can alleviate it."

Hamilton County farmer Jason Ochs took this photo in July. I shows part of a field planted with Antero (left side) and Clara on the right. Clara has resistance to the wheat streak mosaic virus whereas Antero is more susceptible.

Standing in their field, farmers can easily see the streaks of yellow infecting their wheat plant. But the culprit behind wheat streak mosaic can't be seen by the naked eye.

Wheat streak is transmitted by way of wind-blown microscopic wheat curl mites. The mite survives largely in volunteer wheat — the wheat that grows in the field after the year's harvest. Wheat streak can become a problem if the mites survive and carry the virus into a new crop of wheat.

"You see it when the plants are infected and start dying but you don't see the bug," said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations for Kansas Wheat. "It's hard to see there is a problem there."

The virus was worse this year for a couple reasons, said Harries. Because of the struggling farm economy, there wasn't as much money for controlling volunteer wheat last fall. Also, some farmers don't understand how the disease is spread and the importance to control their volunteer wheat.

Meanwhile, timely rainfall in July and August 2016 helped volunteer wheat flourish and the warm fall was ideal for the spread of wheat curl mites, said Erick De Wolf, professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University. While the field of new wheat next to a patch of volunteer is most susceptible, the mites can be known to move a mile or two.
Also, there was no hard freeze until late November in many areas.

Educating farmers

Farmers saw a decline in yield potential in many western Kansas fields and some farmers abandoned acreage, De Wolf said. All told — 5.7 percent of the state's total crop was affected — largely in west-central and parts of southwest and northwest Kansas.

An education campaign titled ‘Stop the Streak’ aims to prevent the conditions that led to the above-normal levels of the virus this year.

Kansas Wheat, along with the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Kansas State University, launched the Stop the Streak campaign in July aimed at educating farmers about wheat streak and the need to control volunteer wheat, Harries said.

Harries said they are hoping for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help spread the print and radio campaign, along with direct mailings and other advertising.

De Wolf said he is currently speaking at pre-plant wheat schools across the state this August. Wheat streak mosaic has been one of the big topics of discussion.

While volunteer wheat is a major host for wheat curl mites, there are other hosts, including CRP land or grass roadways and waterways, De Wolf said. That said, volunteer wheat is the biggest reason why the disease spreads.

"We emphasis volunteer because it is a very clear host," said De Wolf, adding it might not completely eliminate the issue but is the biggest threat to the problem."Right now is the prime time to make decisions about planting and preparing for planting and that includes awareness of the risk with volunteer wheat."

There is no treatment for wheat streak once it arrives in the fields, Hamilton County farmer Ochs said. The best way to get rid of wheat streak mosaic is to control it.

Stopping the disease

He said there are three things farmers can do to stop it: kill volunteer wheat, avoid early planting and plant varieties that are resistant to wheat streak. He did all three, and he saw the results.

While his county was hit hard with wheat streak mosaic, Ochs said he plants most of his acres after the "Hessian fly-free date." Planting later, typically in late September, reduces the risk for the new wheat crop and the mites are less likely to move into the newly planted wheat.

Ochs also plants hard white wheat varieties resistant to wheat streak mosaic. That includes the varieties Clara and Joe. Wheat streak was minimal in his fields for these reasons.


"I was blessed this year," he said.

His worst yield was better than the historical county average of 28 bushels an acre. Much of his crop averaged between 50 bushels an acre to the high 80s. He harvested 100 percent of his crop, he said.

"Let's try to get the volunteer wheat killed and plant a little bit later," Ochs said.

But not all farmers had the same outcome as Ochs. Lane County farmer Vance Ehmke killed his volunteer wheat last year but not all farmers in the county did the same. The certified seed grower saw significant yield reduction due to the virus.

"Thanks to negligent neighbors — the fields that were hit on our place were the most expensive seed fields that we have," Ehmke said.

Test weights were as low as 48 pounds a bushel. Some fields averaged just 10 bushels an acre.

"We easily lost $150,000 to $200,000," he said. "And there are a lot of people who lost that much."

One farmer he knows lost 1,000 acres to wheat streak. Another farmer lost 3,000 "just because of dead-beat farmers."

"In a down economy, you need every cent you can to make money," Ehmke said.

Ehmke said some in the wheat industry are wondering if volunteer wheat should be a noxious weed so there is resource. He appreciated the meetings and educational efforts, but added those in attendance often already know about the problem.

"We've been trying the education thing 50 years," he said.

He wishes farmers with deaf ears would hear the message the industry is trying to spread about volunteer wheat.

"It's a weed," Ehmke said. "It is a bad farming practice to leave it out there."