Checking Canada's cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower and more

Sniffer dogs are on the lookout for crop disease

A Canadian experiment is under way to see if dogs could detect the damaging clubroot disease in commercial crops. Clubroot is a parasitic mould-like disease that infects plant roots and either seriously damages the plant, reducing yield, or eventually kills it. It often attacks cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, radishes, turnips, mustard, and canola which is a major crop in western Canada.

Micheal Harding, plant pathologist with the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry department was inspired by reports of dogs being used to detect diseases in avocado crops in Florida. Shortly afterwards he was contacted by two New Brunswick dog trainers about detecting crop diseases with dogs and with help from a research group, Farming Smarter, training to detect clubroot began with the dogs

Field trials are much more difficult as there are many distractions for the dogs as they move through a field, such as gophers or other small animals, and a variety of new smells. Nonetheless, the initial trial worked well with the dogs either putting their nose on the infected plant, or digging at it a little.

The advantage a sniffer dog would represent for farmers is a reduction in time and labour costs compared to having people walk through a field looking for stunted plants and then digging them out to see if there is clubroot.

Whether the idea gains more widespread attention remains to be seen, but Harding says further training and trials will see if the dogs can detect the clubroot spores  on the ground and on equipment in order to catch the disease at the earliest stages and prevent its spread.

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