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Published October 31, 2011, 05:28 AM

ND farm family to shift more to new sawfly-resistance

RICHARDTON, N.D. — Vern Tormaschy was putting on anhydrous ammonia, preparing ground for the Mott variety of spring wheat in 2012. Going to Mott is a strategy that worked in 2011 after losing half of his yield to sawfly in 2010.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

RICHARDTON, N.D. — Vern Tormaschy was putting on anhydrous ammonia, preparing ground for the Mott variety of spring wheat in 2012. Going to Mott is a strategy that worked in 2011 after losing half of his yield to sawfly in 2010.

Tormaschy and his son, Jason, farm together. They produce mostly spring wheat and a little barley and oats. The oats and barley are used in the family’s cattle operation. Vern’s oldest son, Toby, runs a dairy operation that is on the farm where Vern’s father, Victor, still lives, and they all work together, more or less.

Sawfly has become an increasing problem in Tormaschy’s region in the last decade. In “2010, it was my turn,” Tormaschy says. In 2011, he found at least a partial solution in the Mott variety that was released by North Dakota State University in 2009.

“I like to raise spring wheat because it’s an earlier crop, as far as harvesting goes,” Tormaschy says. “I wouldn’t mind trying some corn, but when you get into late October and the snow is flying, I’d just as soon have my combine cleaned up and put in the shed.”

Saw what?

Sawfly isn’t a fly at all, but is actually a wasp, says Patrick Beauzay, a North Dakota State University entomology research specialist.

Adults are nearly a half-inch long. The female crawls along a suitable host plant. They like wheat when it is in the so-called elongation stage. She’ll insert her ovipositor into the stem and lay an egg in the lumen, the hollow part of the stem, in late June and into early July.

“One thing with the sawfly flight period, it can last quite awhile, so you can see sawfly at potentially damaging levels for two to three weeks, which makes insecticides fairly ineffective,” Beauzay says.

The larvae tunnel up and down through the stem, causing damage. First, they feed on vascular plant tissue, which cuts seed weight in yield. Second, when the larva is mature, later in the season, they’ll tunnel to the base of the plant and construct a pupation chamber. Then they’ll turn around, chew the plant off at the base and plug up the hole with its own “frass,” or feces. Then they’ll overwinter in that little stub in the soil.

“The rest of the plant that it just chewed off, when the wind blow, it will lodge over. It might get harvested; it might not.”

Tormaschy says sawfly seems ubiquitous in his neighborhood.

“I think it’s almost everywhere,” he says. “They’ve had it many years, and it isn’t going away.” He thinks he typically has a 10 to 15 percent yield loss because of it, but in 2010, it “really got me.” He says he could spray for it, but it would be cost-prohibitive.

Tracking a pest

North Dakota State University is keeping track of the sawfly situation. In 2009, a survey of county Extension Service agents determined a significant amount of damage from sawfly. On the conservative side, the sawfly damage that year caused $25 million for the state’s farmers, and perhaps as much as $70 million, depending on assumptions. Among the assumptions were the value of wheat lost and the range of damage attributed to the pest.

Eric Eriksmoen, an agronomist at the NDSU Research and Extension Center in Hettinger, and Janet Knodel, NDSU Extension Service entomologist, are two of the university’s key experts, but neither was immediately available to talk about the issue. Eriksmoen and others, including Knodel and David Weaver of Montana State University, organized a wheat stem focus group in February 2010, involving a number of constituents — growers, crop consultants and others — to assess the situation for possible action.

Beauzay, who works with Knodel, says the university has just finished processing 25,000 wheat stem samples from the 2011 crop, which compare about 20 wheat varieties at five locations. Mott, an NDSU variety released in 2009, and Choteau, a Montana State University variety, both have resistance.

Mott is a solid-stemmed variety, which impedes sawfly egg-laying. It also may have some chemical constituents that increase sawfly deaths.

The study looks at both hollow-stem varieties and some of the solid-stem varieties grown in a randomized design. Three of the locations are in the southwest part of the state. Another is farther north near Makoti, N.D. A fifth location would have been in Williston, although that plot didn’t get planted this year because of untimely moisture.

Beauzay says his part of the study is to collect the samples from small research plots and split the stems to look at damage. This is the fourth year of the study, which is funded partly by the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education and partly from the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

He also says Knodel and others are discussing the feasibility of coming up with a survey, similar to an annual survey done with wheat midge. One idea is to sample wheat stubble and determine the percentage of sawfly larvae. The midge study is done on a grid, using Extension Service agents.

Changing strategy

Tormaschy says he’d been seeding a Pioneer variety since 1996 or 1997.

“The thing I like about my Pioneer is that it’s an early-maturing variety,” he says. “It’s produced well — good protein, good weight.”

But in 2010, he lost 50 percent of the crop because of the pest.

This winter he bought 1,000 bushels of Mott wheat and seeded a little over 700 acres. The Mott wheat averaged 30.1 bushels an acre, and all standing up.

“The Pioneer didn’t go down bad this year from the sawfly, but went about 18.5 bushels an acre,” he says. “I had a 12-bushel-per-acre increase by going to Mott.”

Next year, Tormaschy’s going to seed 80 to 90 percent Mott.

“We’ll still seed a small amount of Pioneer,” he says. “The thing about my Pioneer is that it’s an early-maturing variety. So I can get started on that Pioneer. And if I get it in early, it don’t go down to sawfly. But as time goes on, it just keeps going down worse, especially if you’ve got a lot of wind. Mott stays up, but it’s a slower-maturing variety.”

The Tormaschys run about 150 head of beef cows — Charolais cross with red Angus and Gelbveigh. Toby raises silage corn and raises oats and peas.

“We chop that and he feeds that to his dairy herd, and he uses distiller’s grain from” the ethanol plant Red Trail Energy L.L.C., Vern says.

The silage corn in 2011 ran 20.1 tons an acre, with some huge cobs.

“If we’d have harvested that, I think it would have pushed 200 bushels an acre,” Vern says. “On the lowest side, it would have done 135. For this part of the state that’s unreal. It makes me think I should plant some ‘grain corn,’ but . . . well, no.”

Bread and beef

Tormaschy sold his calves on Oct. 20, at Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, N.D. He had two groups of steers. They averaged $1.43 per pound. His first group of steers averaged 677 pounds and the second group was 612 pounds. That’s as much as he’s ever sold calves for, he acknowledges, but half-jokes, “it’s still not quite enough.”

Last year, his first 30 steers weighed an average of 698 pounds.

“They’re a little lighter this year. I think the grass is greener this year. There’s not as much ‘push’ in that green grass. I think they gained a lot better last year, so they’re 25 to 30 pounds a head lighter this year than they were last year,” Tormaschy says.

Wheat prices have tumbled recently. That doesn’t make sense to him, so he’s going to hang onto it as long as he can, until the bank says he has to crack open a bin or two.

He says that even at $8.46 per bushel for 14 protein wheat, he’s “amazed” that it’s that low, considering the number of prevented-planting acres and the relatively low yield.

“For the price of the fertilizer and everything, this grain should be at $10 a bushel, if not more. I think you’re break-even point is going to be close to $10 a bushel,” he says.

“I sold the cattle. I’ve got some cash to go on and I want to do my fall anhydrous (application) thing. I try to get everything anhydrous in the fall if I can. It kind of knocks the stubble down and dries out the fields in the spring because they don’t hold so much snow. But anhydrous is $850 a ton. That’s going to soak up all that money them calves made me.”

It would help if he could keep ahead of the sawfly. Maybe Mott will help in 2012.