By Connor Lynch
Vomitoxin remains the singular topic of discussion and source of frustration in southwestern Ontario. Small wonder; by Grain Farmers of Ontario estimates, as much as a quarter of the corn crop may have been discounted because of the toxin.
The toxic byproduct of the fusarium mould, also known as vomitoxin, requires no introduction in farm country. The GFO has pegged market losses from discounts and rejected corn at $200 million. By their estimate, about 1.2 million acres of Ontario’s corn, over half the entire crop, had at least a detectable level of vomitoxin, also commonly referred to as DON (Deoxynivalenol, the scientific name for the toxin). Around 600,000 acres, more than a quarter of the crop, had levels high enough to discount the corn.
In Southwestern Ontario, the toxin drew farmers to the GFO’s delegate meetings last month.
Kevin Armstrong, the director for Waterloo and Oxford Counties, saw 70 farmers at this year’s meeting, almost twice as many farmers as last year, although last year there was a poor turnout, he said. The vast majority of the meeting focused on DON. There’s plenty of frustration in farm country around the variability of testing, inadequacies of crop insurance programs, missed marketing opportunities and the risk of planting corn this year. The GFO has taken its fair share of ire as well.
“Certainly, we’ve had our share of angry phone calls, both at the office and as directors, thinking somehow we can solve the problem,” Armstrong said. “Once the general membership was made aware of exactly what was going on behind the scenes, they were more than satisfied with the way we are approaching the problem and what we’ve been able to accomplish so far.”
Some farmers were hit extremely hard by DON, though in some cases their neighbours were hardly affected. Perth County crop farmer and GFO delegate Josh Boerson said as much as three-quarters of his corn crop had very significant amounts of DON. Levels as high as 15 parts per million were common, which is twice the cutoff for most elevators. He even detected levels as high as 25 ppm. He figured all the damage and discounts will cost him about $75,000.
It’s a rough patch, but it won’t bankrupt him, he said, and he can still sell his corn. He sold a fair amount to brokers willing to buy infected corn no matter the vom level, no questions asked, paying $4 per bushel, he said. IGPC ethanol plant at Aylmer was also buying infected corn at $4 per bushel, he said. “They seem to be the benchmark for the area now that export isn’t accepting a lot.”
Boerson isn’t planning on swapping over his acres as much as he’s planning to swap his hybrids. “The teeter totter is not tipped so heavily towards yields, but more towards grain quality. I think we’ll stay on that path going forward.”
The time for a quick solution to the crisis has long since passed, but the wheels are in motion. Here’s what’s in the works:
The province recently announced that the Commodity Loan Guarantee Program would have an extended deadline to apply and offer more money to help farmers buy inputs for planting this year. The repayment deadline is being extended from Feb. 28 to Sept. 30 to give farmers who’ve already used the program more breathing room, and the maximum overall payout is getting bumped up from $120 million to $200 million. Individual farms qualify for loans of up to $750,000.
The province also reached out to the feds to activate Agri-Recovery. Both levels of government will do a joint assessment of the situation and put together a program for farmers. GFO chair Markus Haerle has been working with the province and has focused its efforts on covering cost of production rather than the market shortfall in the hopes the feds will be more likely to go for it. Haerle said that the federal government has confirmed there will be a program put in place, though the specifics of how it will work remain to be seen. Putting a program together for beef producers in 2012 took about six months from crisis to payouts.
Plenty of farmers are concerned about the next growing season. DON is a tricky problem without one clear solution, said senior agronomist with Agris Co-op Dale Cowan. But, there are things farmers can do to lower their risk.
Plant multiple hybrids to spread out your risk, and avoid the high-risk hybrids like DEKALB 5505, PRIDE 7373, or PIONEER PO825, he said.
“Do everything you can for uniform emergence and growth,” Cowan said. Emergence is far from the only factor that affects DON risk but it does affect it significantly. Typically, it was the late-emerging plants getting the worst DON infections.
Target your fungicide program at silking more than tasselling. However, Cowan said that silking is such a tight window — usually about a week — that there might simply not be enough time to get all the corn. But a late silk spray can reduce DON infection by as much as 50 per cent, he said. That won’t help a grower with 34 ppm corn, but it will for a grower with 8 ppm.
Finally, any stress on your corn plants is going to make them more vulnerable to mould infection. Control for those controllable stresses as much as possible, he said.