Fusarium head blight, also known as head scab, is not an annual problem in wheat, but it is an annual concern of wheat producers.

When a significant amount of head blight is widespread throughout an area, it can cause substantial crop losses and loss of income for producers.

During the 1990s, U.S. producers lost an estimated $3 billion to the disease. More recently, as a result of a widespread occurrence of Fusarium head blight in 2009 in Kentucky, the state’s producers lost an estimated $30 million.

David Van Sanford, wheat breeder in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, has worked to breed varieties that are resistant to Fusarium head blight. With funding from the United States Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative, he’s conducting research on the effectiveness of a new piece of equipment that may boost Fusarium resistance in several varieties.

The equipment is a high speed, imaged-based optical sorter designed by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists in northern Kansas.

“If this works in our breeding populations, the susceptible seeds will be eliminated prior to planting and the seeds we take to the field will have a pretty good level of scab resistance,” he said. “It could save time and money and ideally help us get to the end product more quickly.”

The machine has a camera mounted to it that photographs each seed as it passes through one of three vibration channels. If the image shows grain that appears to have Fusarium, the camera will send the image to a microprocessor that triggers a burst of air to remove the kernel from the channel and into a waste bin.  

In 2010, Van Sanford began a study where half of the wheat seed went through the sorter before going to the field at UK’s Spindletop Research Farm in Lexington. Wheat from the study was harvested during June.

Researchers will plant two seed lots, sorted and unsorted in October and analyze the results comparing sorted and unsorted wheat by next summer.

If the test proves successful, Van Sanford will conduct additional research about whether running seeds through the machine more times creates a higher level of Fusarium resistance.

If the results are promising, this technology could be applied to the thousands of populations that are handled by the breeding program, Van Sanford said.