Most people know the “telephone game” or a game the world calls Chinese Whispers. In the grade school version, the teacher tells a secret to the first student, and the student take turns sharing the secret with each other. Sometimes the end message matches the original, and other times they are almost unrelated.
This week, my life has felt like a game of Chinese Whispers. It all started with a phone call about a potential disaster in our cereal rye crop. Many farms in North Florida grow rye for a seed patch for their own cover crop or winter grazing use, and others grow for cleaning and resale. In an age where we are pouring more inputs into cash crops to fight insect, diseases, or to increase fertility, rye has been a reliable stalwart, producing a good crop with a minimum of management and inputs. Thus my surprise when the phone rings:
Farmer: “Mace, what is this disease in the rye.”
Mace: “Disease? What disease?”
Farmer: “I don’t know I just don’t want to lose this rye if I can do something to prevent it.”
Mace: “Well what does it look like?”
Farmer: “I don’t know, that’s what I’m asking you.”
Thus the day of an Extension Agent began, working through the “whisper chain,” trying to find out who knows what about the mysterious disease. Typically calls like this are met with, “I don’t know what your talking about.” However this time I stumble across a chemical dealer with a nugget of information, a farmer with another nugget, I learn a Plant Pathologist and Plant Breeder have nuggets, and that several Extension colleagues are all already chasing some leads. What a way to start the day.
In turn, I headed out to look at a some rye fields and come to the overwhelming conclusion, “Well, it looks like we are in the process of making a half a rye crop, and Oh, look at all the disease on the stem.” No big deal, right. However, along the way I got to the heart of the matter with some help from Dr. Ann Blount, Forage Breeder for University of Florida. We developed a bit of a summary of local conditions. I will attempt to share that summary:
Most of the rye we are seeing suffered from poor pollination. Rye is a cross-pollinated plant. Rain at the wrong period of time can reduce pollen transfer among plants. Lack of pollination has resulted in “blanks” or empty seed hulls. Without the flow of nutrients to a viable seed, the hull decays and is a host for saphrophytic fungus. Saphrophytes do not cause economic damage, they simply live on decaying organic matter. Thus no “cause and effect,” but farmers are seeing no seed, and a fungus present. Finally, stems are cankered up and down with Bipolaris spp. This fungus is “also known as” Helminthosporium spp. This stem damage will obviously result in weakened stems and lodging, but was not responsible for the poor seed set. Finally, with all the rain this winter/spring, we might expect to have lost some potassium fertilizer. Potassium is important to stalk health, and a deficiency often disposes plants to more attack from these stem diseases. Again, not exactly “cause and effect,” but more of a loose association.
In a nutshell, I was right back to where we started. A cool wet year= a crummy small grain crop. In this case cereal rye appears to be a short crop which can have many local implications; expect shorter supplies and higher prices. Couple this with high demand for seed for winter grazing due to high cattle prices, and you can bet we will be talking about high seed prices this fall. Those who grew a fair crop for sale will be in the drivers seat.