Small plots of early planted soybeans are the backbone of the U.S. advanced warning network for Asian soybean rust. Seemingly simple, these plots are the key to providing a means for early detection of the fierce fungus.

“Without the sentinel plot system soybean farmers are in jeopardy,” says David Wright, director of the North Central Soybean Research Program (NCSRP). “Brazilian farmers have used sentinel plots for the past two years and those plots have been very effective in being able to provide a means for early detection of soybean rust.”

A sentinel plot is planted about two weeks earlier than normal commodity soybeans and can be planted with an earlier maturing variety. Soybeans are an excellent host for rust and they're a good indicator for the disease beginning at the reproductive stage, says Wright. In some northern states where planting two weeks earlier isn't feasible, the earliest planted fields will be used as sentinel plots. Patches of kudzu, a weed susceptible to soybean rust, are also being monitored as part of the sentinel system.

According to Dore Mobley, APHIS public affairs specialist, the U.S. sentinel plot network encompasses 35 states (31 with soybeans planted as sentinel plots and four with dry beans) at a cost to USDA of about $800,000.

However, various organizations are involved in the program. In the 12 north central states, as well as eight other states, NCSRP and the United Soybean Board (USB) have partnered with USDA to fund and implement the sentinel plots. (See map on page 22.)

“By monitoring sentinel plots, we may be able to give growers a couple of weeks advanced notice to treat for the disease,” says Mobley. “Soybean rust is manageable with appropriately timed fungicide applications and sentinel plots will give us that time.”

She adds that the USDA Web site www.usda.gov/soybeanrust is a comprehensive site that provides the latest information about the disease as well as several resources.

Wright says many of the plots are planted on university research farms, while others will be located in grower fields. Some seed companies are also planting sentinel plots. The only difference is that if rust is found on a university site, the soybeans won't be treated with a fungicide.

“There's a critical need to let rust take its course on university research farms so we can learn more about the pathogen in those environments and what potential affect it might have on the soybean,” says Wright.

As for monitoring the sites, he says every state is different. “Most states will rely on Extension personnel to monitor the plots,” Wright says. “Some states are hiring personnel to do the monitoring while other states are hiring local certified crop advisers.”

Speedy disease identification is critical. Wright says the first finding within a state undergoes a stringent protocol. The sample must go to the local disease lab and to the regional plant diagnostic lab. At the same time, a sample goes to Beltsville, MD, for identification by USDA. No notification can officially be made until the USDA lab in Beltsville confirms the disease.

Once rust is confirmed, the system in place for notification varies from state to state, but each state has put together a soybean rust response plan. Once the first sighting is confirmed, local crop inspectors can identify the disease and farmers can begin spraying fungicide.

Results of all samples sent to USDA are posted on a central Web site, www.sbrusa/net. A map indicates areas that are being scouted. Red indicators show where rust has been confirmed.

There are several aspects of the advanced warning network that enhance the sentinel plot program. Rain sampling is one of them. This system is currently used to monitor the movement of wheat rust from Texas into northern states, according to Wright. A system like this is being put into place to monitor for Asian soybean rust.

The rain is harvested and what's deposited is examined. “If rust spores are identified, we'll know that there will be a possibility of symptoms showing up in about 10 days,” he says. “Identifying the presence of spores in rainwater gives us a good indication that rust may soon show up. However, the spores must fall on a suitable host and must be exposed to the right environment to germinate before soybean rust can become a problem.”

Another component of the program is the mobile team. Once rust is confirmed in a state, a mobile team will be activated to try to identify how widespread the infected area might be.

Prediction models are also a crucial component of the program. Models have been used to track the movement of rust across South America for four years. Now similar models will be used to predict the movement of rust spores within the U.S.

Scouting Across North America

Pioneer Hi-Bred International is working with USDA to help track the spread of rust. According to Tom Hall, Pioneer's technical systems manager, more than 200 Pioneer agronomists will use the company's Pioneer Field Information eXchange (PFIX) system to capture field observations using handheld computers. The information gathered is fed into a central system, and information about rust will be immediately provided to USDA.

These observations will supplement the information gathered from plots planted as part of the U.S. sentinel program.

Hall says agronomists will scout both farmers' fields and seed plots. The number of acres scouted is tough to estimate, but he says, “Our folks will look at thousands of acres every day in all directions across North America.” The Pioneer data will add important “ground truthing mechanisms to the USDA sentinel plot program.”

PFIX has helped Pioneer track the movement of insects and pests for the past three years, but this is the first time the information will be shared publicly with growers.

Learning From Brazil

The U.S. sentinel plot program is patterned predominantly after the success of Brazil's program.

Syngenta developed an early warning system for tracking soybean rust in Brazil in 2002, partnering with Embrapa to disseminate information to Brazilian growers.

Syngenta estimates that Brazil's Syntinela program helped farmers avoid a $1 billion loss for the 2003-'04 crop year and an estimated $2 billion in 2004-'05, according to estimates by the Brazilian government.

Albertino Perez, agronomist and manager of farms owned by Henrique and Anselmo Alberti in Tibaji County, Parana, says sentinel plots are an important tool in fighting rust, and helping him manage the timing and volume of applications.

The Alberti farm includes 7,090 hectares (17,725 acres) of cropland, raising corn and soybeans in the summer and wheat, oats and dry beans in the winter.

Perez makes his fungicide application decisions based on the data from sentinel plots, the stage of the crop and other factors like weather conditions.

Olavo Corrêada Silva has researched Asian soybean rust for four years at Fundação ABC, a private, farmer cooperative-funded research facility in Castro, Paraná.

He says it's impossible to adopt one strategy for fighting rust because different climates face different challenges. That's why the cooperative has built an information network that includes monitoring weather stations and scouting sentinel plots twice a week. Data is gathered daily, areas of high risk are mapped and information is posted regularly on the cooperative's Web site.

Because he says rust is so difficult to spot when scouting, it's imperative to have other indicators (like sentinel plots) that provide clues to where rust might be located.

“Information is the key,” says Silva. “Moisture is the determining factor, and by closely monitoring sentinel plots we've had success in predicting the onset of the disease.”

Fundação ABC also partners with Syngenta's Syntinela program in Brazil.

In the U.S., Syngenta has launched its Syntinel RustTracker system, an early warning Web-based system at www.soybeanrust.com that provides growers with tools to obtain information regarding outbreaks of Asian soybean rust.

The Syntinel RustTracker uses Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping technology in combination with information from Syngenta's Syntinel spore traps, data collected from weather forecasts and USDA's sentinel plots, when available.

Boom Continues In Land Prices

Farmland rates of return have fared better compared to stocks that have been less predictable over the past five years. And farmland values keep rising rapidly, according to the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.

Farm real estate prices have seen incremental increases for 17 years in a row, reports USDA/ARS. As of Jan. 2004, those values, including all land and buildings, averaged $1,360/acre, up 7.1% from 2003 figures. This is the largest percentage increase since 1994, when farm real estate values rose 8% from 1993.

The Corn Belt rose 8.4% from 2003 to 2004, reaching $2,460/acre.

Iowa Joins Soybean Boards

Official July 1, the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board join together as a new entity called the Iowa Soybean Association.

A unified group of farmer leaders will make all investment and strategic decisions concerning both checkoff and non-checkoff funds, explains Curt Sindergard, president of ISA and a grower from Rolfe, IA.

Sindergard says the new board will create more transparency in operations by empowering one set of farmers to make all the investment decisions. Also, it's estimated that the overall board expenses will be reduced by about $45,000 a year by moving from two boards of 17 directors each to one board of 21 directors. Directors will continue to be elected by all soybean producers who pay the checkoff.

NCGA Helps Fight Weeds

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), university weed scientists and leading developers of ag crop protection products have developed an online Weed Resistance Management Learning Center to educate growers and ag industry professionals on how to reduce development of resistant weeds. The site is available at www.ncga.com.