Asian Soybean Rust Threatens Alabama Soybean Crop
When Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Gulf Coast last fall, it did more than leave a path of destruction that would take years to overcome. It could be responsible for the biggest challenge to face Southern farmers since the boll weevil.The tropical storm that brushed South America and hit landfall in Gulf Shores, is thought to be the travel agent for Asian Soybean Rust–a fungus that already has caused significant damage to the soybean crop in South America. The destruction the airborne disease can cause is nothing short of astronomical. It can completely defoliate a crop in just two weeks. By the time a farmer knows he has it, it can be too late.As the largest soybean producing country in the world, the United States has been monitoring the spread of the disease in other countries for the past few years. Many scientists thought it would take years for it to reach America. Hurricane Ivan changed that.The first case of Asian Rust was confirmed in Baton Rouge, La. on Nov 6. Since then it has spread to eight more states including Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky. On Nov. 18, inspectors with the Alabama Department of Agriculture confirmed the state’s first case of the disease in a 40-acre field just west of Interstate 65 near Mobile. The next day, the fungus was detected in four fields in Baldwin County. Eventually, the disease also was detected in, Blount, Cullman, Houston, Elmore, Tuscaloosa, Lauderdale, Henry, DeKalb, Cherokee, Escambia, Monroe, Marshall, Etowah, Morgan, Madison and Limestone counties. Some producers may have been surprised. But Dr. Edward Sikora, a professor and Extension Plant Pathologist with the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology of Auburn University, said he knew the day would come–he just didn’t know when.”For at least the past two years, we’ve been hearing more about (Asian Rust),” Sikora said. “It wasn’t if it was going to show up, but when. Last year, I had four or five meetings with county agents and other ag people, describing to them what they should look for and how to sample for it. We thought it would take one to five years to show up. The hurricane just sped things up.”If there was a bright spot to the arrival of the dreaded disease in Alabama, it was that it arrived late in the season, when many fields were already harvested. The timing of it was a positive thing, Sikora said, the fungus doesn’t survive cold weather.”We know it got here, and it will be back this year, but we’re not sure how soon. But it will be here, and we’re going to have to be prepared to deal with it,” he said. “I’ve been told that once a farmer sees it in his field, that it’s probably already spread to other fields within a hundred miles.”Most scientists believe it will take at least two applications of fungicide to control the disease – the first during the bloom period of the plant and the second roughly 20 days later.Alabama Farmers Federation Soybean Division Director Steve Guy said the cost of fungicide applications compounded by the already low prices for soybeans might cause a lot of farmers to reduce their acreage or switch to another crop entirely. Asian soybean rust will be a major topic of discussion at the Alfa Farmers’ Commodity Producers Organizational Conference Feb. 1-3 at the HealthSouth Conference Center in Birmingham. Soybean producers will hold their meeting Feb. 3. However the disease can affect farmers who don’t grow soybeans, Guy said.Soybeans are used in so many things, if the prices jump, it will have a ripple affect. Soybeans are grown in many counties in Alabama and have hundreds of uses. Livestock feed is the number one use for soybeans in the United States, but they also can be found in everything from tofu and soy milk to hair conditioners and fuel additives. Sikora said many produce farmers in the state should take warning of the disease as well. The fungus attacks a variety of legumes, including lima beans and cowpeas. The broad host range of the fungal pathogen increases the likelihood of rapid spread of the disease.”The cost of the chemical application and the farmers’ feeling as to what the market price of soybeans will do will probably be the keys as to whether a farmer plants soybeans,” Guy said. “Once the farmer makes the decision to plant, he is committed financially to try to bring the crop through.”Guy said because of the climate conditions in the South, he believes this region has the potential to be hit harder by soybean rust than the Midwest.Kudzu is a good host for the disease and in southern areas of the United States, the pesky plant could serve as a winter host for Asian Soybean Rust.”Brazil and Argentina have coped with this disease for years,” Guy said. “But low market prices coupled with costly chemicals for control here, could take many farmers out of the soybean business in the South.”Soybeans currently are bringing about $5.50 per bushel, with an average state yield of 30 bushels or less per acre. That translates into about $150 per acre gross income. Fungicide costs could add another $40 per acre in input costs, greatly reducing the farmers’ bottom line.Many farmers are still contemplating growing soybeans, which usually are planted in April or May. Guy said farmer education is vital in helping them make a decision.”First, producers will need to know what to look for to scout their soybeans for the disease,” Guy said. “Second, they will need to know what chemicals are available to combat the disease, and they will need information on how to make applications in different situations. Third, producers will need to know up front what the cost of an application will be to make a decision as to whether they will take the risk to plant soybeans.”Soybean farmers like Harold Phillips of Jackson County and Donald Underwood of Baldwin County say the future of soybeans in Alabama is uncertain.”I’ve been planting soybeans for 50 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Underwood said. “I’m afraid if the cost of preventive spraying exceeds $20 per acre, many farmers will take a wait-and-see approach. That’s scary because it’s possible that by the time a farmer knows he has it, it could be too late.”Underwood said he planted about 1,100 acres last year and isn’t sure how many acres he’ll plant this year. Some of his acreage already was destined for peanut rotation.”The big fear is that Asian Rust will move into the Midwest–if that happens it would be a huge thing,” Underwood said.Phillips said farmers in his area are divided–some don’t really think it’s a threat. Others are saying they won’t plant any soybeans.Annie Dee and her family own Dee River Ranch in Pickens County. Last year they planted about 2,000 acres of soybeans and they are one of the state’s largest producers. She said there are a couple of possible bright spots that farmers could focus on.”If less beans are planted, the price should go up,” Dee said. “Also, we have already been applying at least one fungicide application a year to our beans, so if one additional application is needed the cost shouldn’t be too high. Besides, even in years when rust wasn’t an issue, fungicide applications increased our yields, and that helps offset the input costs.”Soybean production in Alabama peaked at 2.1 million acres in 1979, but drought and low prices attributed to its decline in the state. Last year, farmers planted about 210,000 acres of soybeans–up nearly 20 percent from 2003. Those numbers are expected to drop substantially this year.The soybean checkoff is funding research to develop varieties resistant to rust and formulate ways to identify and control the disease. Also, scientists, researchers and farmers will monitor sentinel plots for early detection of Asian soybean rust.Two fungicides are approved under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Section 3 for rust control in the United States. Several others are included in a special request to EPA.Meetings are being planned across the state to help farmers identify rust and to educate them about fungicide application rates and methods. In addition to the Alfa Farmers Commodity Producers Organizational meeting, the Alabama Soybean and Corn Growers Association will meet Feb. 12 at the Holiday Inn Research Park in Huntsville. For more information about that meeting, contact Regional Extension Agent Mark Hall at (256) 532-1578, ext. 22 or email him at email@example.com.Additional information and photos of Asian rust can be found on the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website at www.aphis.usda.gov or by calling the APHIS hotline at (888) 703-4457.