Fall Armyworm meets its match in Ginger industry

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It’s been nearly two years since fall armyworm was first detected in Australia, and in that time the pest has made its presence felt. With the ability to travel vast distances of up to 100 kilometres overnight, and an appetite for summer crops, the fall armyworm can devour large quantities of crops – including ginger – in a matter of days. 

Quick action taken by the Australian Ginger Industry Association and AgriFutures Australia has meant not only is the pest being closely monitored, but more importantly, growers are prepared for new incursions and equipped to keep an outbreak under control. 

Rob Abbas is a well-known agronomist who has spent decades with his boots in the dirt. An unflappable bloke full of sound, respected and evidence-based advice, Rob has nearly seen it all when it comes to horticulture – but he’s never seen a pest arrive so ferociously as fall armyworm. 

“We had our first ginger infestation in Bundaberg in February of 2021 and since then I’m not aware of any ginger farm that hasn’t had some level of fall armyworm damage,” Rob said. 

“Bundaberg was of concern to us initially because of the extent of cropping in that region but we actually found that some of our worst infestations were in the Mary Valley where we did not expect to see the level of damage that occurred. 

“I suspect that’s because we’ve had a good open season. Fall armyworm is attracted to grass type species and there were paddocks of sorghum and corn that dairy farmers and pastoralists grew for their cattle, alongside ginger production. Now we’ve had infestation from the Lockyer Valley right through to Bundaberg in every ginger growing region.” 

Of even greater concern than the speed at which the pest has spread, was the limited understanding ginger growers had of how to manage it. 

“Fall armyworm was completely new to the industry, so we knew we had to obtain help from someone who had more experience with it,” Rob Abbas said. 

As part of a Ginger Extension Coordination project, funded by AgriFutures Australia, and supported by the Queensland Government and the Australian Ginger Industry Association, agronomist Bhargav Rayeni was employed for his fall armyworm expertise. 

Rob Abbas said his appointment to the extension project was a gamechanger for the whole industry. 

“It was a critical appointment because we really needed someone with his level of skill, particularly in identification,” Rob said. 

“Bhargav came to us with vast experience with the pest in sweet corn and green beans, so his knowledge was invaluable. He was immediately put to work to visit every ginger farm, to put traps on those farms, and to show growers how to identify the pest and help them to put together a control program.” 

Bhargav’s expertise in identifying the pest – especially when the grub is very tiny, as it is easy to control, but difficult to see – proved to be priceless. 

“The industry is new to me, so while it wasn’t challenging for me to deal with the pest, it was challenging to build awareness with growers about the new pest and to help them to identify different markers in their crop,” Bhargav said. 

Bhargav said a culture change in spraying for grubs was also needed. 

“Ginger growers had previously never really had to spray for grubs because no one had ever had this level of infestation. I explained and demonstrated the different methods of treatment and ginger growers are invested in the process as a result”, he said. 

Rob Abbas said the collaborative nature of Bhargav’s work saw ginger growers garner true success.  

“He was – and still is – available to growers to send him photos so he can help identify the pest and discuss options with growers. Making sure that the pest is controlled during those first couple of crucial detection days when control is easy to do and cost effective, and the damage is minor, is so important,” Rob said. 

As part of the project, Bhargav also led the production of a one-page guide that provides a summary of available products to combat fall armyworm, matched with the timing of the crop, the rate, and the withholding period. 

The outcomes of the project are really positive,” Bhargav said. 

“Growers have increased awareness about fall armyworm and know how to identify it, they are monitoring closely and know their management options if and when needed. In addition, growers now know how careful they have to be about the cover crops they plant. For instance, we’ve seen a big uptake in summer fallow crops moving away from straight sorghum-type crops to sorghum/sunn hemp mixes, as we know sunn hemp can be a real deterrent to the grubs. 

“And of course, if they need any help, I’m just a phone call away and am happy to drop in, have a look and help them out.” 

For more information or assistance, contact Bhargav Rayeni on 0487 352 340 or Rob Abbas on 0418 797 100. 

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