Blackleg and clubroot are both serious diseases that are growing in severity across Alberta, but with proper and diligent management by all farmers, they can be effectively controlled.
Blackleg is a fungal canker or dry rot that results in stem girdling and lodging. The disease has been present in canola fields since the 1980s.
Today, the availability and use of canola cultivars with resistance to blackleg has helped to avoid significant damage, notes Michael Harding, a research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF). However, it is still very common to see blackleg in canola crops.
Harding and his colleagues have undertaken recent surveys for blackleg (and stem rot) on Alberta canola. In 2016, they found that of 480 canola fields, 432 of them had blackleg symptoms. Indeed, Harding states “the prevalence of blackleg in Alberta has been measured at 55 to 99 per cent in the six surveys conducted over the past eight years. Prevalence was slightly lower in 2017 compared with 2016, as it was a relatively dry year in comparison.”
Long-term survey trends show the pathogen to be present throughout the province, and Harding does not believe any area or farm should consider itself “blackleg free.” Some fields experience little to no loss due to blackleg while others may have significant disease pressure, and he says economic loss experienced by individual farms depends on their location in the province, local weather and field history, as well as cropping and disease management practices.
“Blackleg is always a risk for canola producers and blackleg management practices should be proactive,” Harding says. “Crop rotation (one host crop every four years) is a very effective way to keep disease pressure from building. The pathogen does not survive in soil without a host. So, once the canola residues are decomposed, there is little to no risk of economically-damaging blackleg pressure originating within that field.”
Harding also notes that genetic resistance in the MR- and R-rated canola cultivars is keeping disease severity very low in most fields, as was seen in the survey data. However, Ralph Lange Team Lead Crop Pathology and Molecular Biology at InnoTech Alberta, notes there are now yearly cases of severe loss in cultivars labelled “resistant,” a significant change from the 1990s and 2000s that indicates the pathogen is adapting.
Lange says there are about eight different blackleg strains in Western Canada, and in Alberta, about 80 per cent of all isolates belong to just three strains.
“We continue to have good resistance genes available, and what’s changed is that we now need to actively manage the crop resistance genes we present to blackleg fungus populations,” he explains. “So, frequent and accurate scouting with excellent record keeping is essential for determining if the genes we’re presenting are working or not. Then, producers need to eliminate the non-functioning resistance genes when selecting which canola cultivar to plant (at least one functioning resistance gene).” This is now much easier, Lange notes, because seed companies are starting to reveal which genes are in which cultivar.
Another tool for blackleg management is fungicides. Harding notes while all certified canola seed is cleaned and treated to make it essentially blackleg-free (although infection can still occur due to spores being released from infected stubble), in high-risk situations during the growing season, foliar fungicides may be applied at the one-to-three leaf stage.
Going forward, Harding says the risk of resistance-building in the pathogen is very real when crop rotation recommendations are ignored, especially in wetter years when blackleg has a better chance to infect and cause disease.
“If genetic resistance were to erode due to selection of virulent pathotypes of the fungus, it would have a devastating impact in areas where genetic resistance was no longer effective,” he notes. “While we are not currently seeing widespread changes in blackleg severity, it has been seen in some individual fields. This is a warning sign that we need to think carefully about crop rotation practices and resistance stewardship in order to stay ahead of blackleg.”
In canola, this soil-borne fungus-like disease causes swellings to form on the roots, ultimately stunting the plant and even causing premature plant death. Infection and severity are supported by warm, moist, acidic soil.
University of Alberta scientists and staff from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry currently conduct yearly clubroot surveys, which began in 2003 when clubroot was first identified in the province. The 2016 survey found 289 new clubroot-infested fields and the 2017 survey another 301.
“What we’ve found is that clubroot is spreading fairly rapidly for a soil-borne plant pathogen, and this seems to be due mainly to the movement of infested soil and machinery,” explains Stephen Strelkov, professor in the faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environment Sciences at the University of Alberta. “We’ve also found significant numbers of spores in wind-blown dust from infested fields which could contribute to local spread.”
There is a continued spread eastward, he adds, with several new infestations recently found near the Saskatchewan border.
“Part of why it often takes a few years for growers to ‘up their game’ when dealing with clubroot is because the impact on yield is often very slight,” notes Dan Orchard, agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada. “It’s almost always found in a patch at the field entrance, and the overall field yield isn’t really affected. But if not managed, that patch will become much, much larger and potentially cause total loss of the entire crop.”
At least 12 new strains of clubroot have been identified in Alberta since 2013, and they are all capable of overcoming the resistance in many clubroot-resistant canola varieties.
“In 2016, these strains were confirmed in over 60 fields in Alberta, and in 2017, we identified another 42 fields with potential resistance issues,” Strelkov notes. “These new strains have likely emerged as a result of cropping of clubroot-resistant canola in short rotation in fields with moderate to severe clubroot infestations.”
Orchard notes while best management strategies make a big difference, they are difficult to deploy. “This would include equipment sanitation, which growers have suggested could be hours and hours per piece of equipment for each field,” he says. “Not cleaning equipment is a risk growers seem to be accepting, although I believe many or most of them make sure equipment from unknown regions or potential clubroot regions is clean before entering their lands, which is a great practice to follow.”
He adds there is evidence around the world and preliminary evidence in Alberta suggesting pH plays a major role in clubroot spread and severity.
“Liming fields could reduce clubroot impact, but it’s another excellent management strategy that’s easier said than done,” Orchard says. “I’m convinced, however, that over the next few years and with the help of new technology, the industry will produce better lime recommendations, better pH mapping, better application techniques, and just a better understanding of lime and the benefits/challenges.”
While he believes genetic resistance is currently the most significant factor in keeping this disease at bay, the fact that new clubroot strains are quickly appearing means growers need to deploy a multi-pronged approach.
“The recipe for success would seem to be liming badly-infested patches and seeding them to a perennial grass until spore loads are manageable, coupled with planting resistant canola varieties and rotating sources of resistance on top of crop rotation.”
Strelkov agrees that with the new strains appearing, it’s unwise to use resistant canola varieties as a sole management strategy. He stresses longer rotations are important, and adds while “sanitation often is not viewed as practical, even steps such as trying to remove large chunks of soil from machinery or working infested fields last can be helpful.”