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In North Texas: Karnal bunt steals millions from farmers

Karnal bunt has robbed four north Texas counties of more than $43 million in just two years, 2001-2002, and threatens to take an even bigger chunk out of the rural economies if trade regulations and movement restrictions are not relaxed.

Wheat contributes a significant amount to the economies of Baylor, Throckmorton, Young and Archer counties, but that role has diminished significantly since Karnal bunt was discovered last year. The area now is under quarantine with strict restrictions governing movement of grain from affected fields.

“The zero tolerance on Karnal bunt is killing us,” says Stan Bevers, Texas Extension economist at Vernon. “It hurts the reputation of the whole state.”

While politicians and agricultural officials work to bring some sanity to the problem, which, according to Extension agronomist Travis Miller, “is not one of the most significant disease problems,” wheat acreage falls and dollars slip away from farmers, agricultural support industries and businesses that serve these rural communities.

“In 2001, farmers suffered more than $10.5 million in direct losses,” Bevers told a group of wheat producers and industry representatives recently at a conference in Abilene. “Indirect losses totaled more than $8.4 million. Total loss was almost $19 million.”

And 2002 was worse. Bevers said farmers planted some acreage to less economical crops. They grazed fewer cattle on winter wheat, and they incurred added costs for grazed cattle that had to be removed from wheat acreage and “cleaned out” for five days before they could be marketed.

Bevers figures farmers in the four-county area planted 75,000 acres to alternate crops in 2002. “They had few alternatives.”

Of the 310,000 acres planted in wheat, Bevers figures about 200,000 would usually go to harvest. Considering drought, that figure would have dropped to about 140,000.

“But we'll likely end up with no more than 58,000 acres harvested in those four counties. That's a dramatic change. Part of the drop is attributable to drought, about 40 percent. With cuts from Karnal bunt, wheat harvested acreage was down by 80 percent.”

The four counties usually produce about 5.7 million bushels of wheat annually. In a drought year, that might drop to 3.3 million. “This year, they'll make 1.17 million bushels,” Bevers said.

That big a reduction cuts into revenues for elevators and other agricultural infrastructure enterprises.

Grazeout acreage increased. Bevers says the area usually has 125,000 acres for cattle grazing or to be baled. In 2002, they had 235,304 acres for baling or grazing (75 percent for grazeout and 25 percent for baling). The downside is that fed cattle prices dropped significantly last March, leaving farmers with little grain to harvest and poor returns on their livestock.

“Baled wheat does not overcome the value of harvested grain and substantial cattle gains,” Bevers said. “And they have to test hay before they can move it out of the area.”

Miller said fewer positive Karnal Bunt readings showed up from the 2002 crop. “The disease requires very precise circumstances to spread, cool, moist conditions from the boot to bloom stage.”

Infection levels in Texas wheat have not been high enough to cause the odor problems in flour that make Karnal Bunt wheat unmarketable. A 3 percent infestation is a threshold. Miller says in 2001, the worst year for Karnal bunt in Texas, the highest infection level hit only 0.35 percent. “It has not been high enough to affect flour quality.”

He said Karnal Bunt is more a regulatory and a trade issue than a serious wheat disease problem.

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