Website can help growers predict, head off pest problems

University Park, Pa. -- A Web-based resource developed by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is helping crop producers manage insects, diseases and weeds, often while reducing the need for pesticides.

The Pennsylvania Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education, or PA PIPE (http://extension.psu.edu/pa-pipe), incorporates National Weather Service data and knowledge of pest biology to forecast the development of insects, diseases and weeds. This information can help growers to monitor and anticipate pest problems and take appropriate action before crops are damaged.

Visitors to the PA PIPE website can view a map of Pennsylvania counties, on which crop and pest development data can be overlaid. A restricted area of the site allows Penn State researchers and extension educators to add data, observations and other information for viewing by users.

The site is an outgrowth of a system developed at Penn State to monitor the spread of Asian soybean rust, an invasive disease first found in the United States in 2004. The soybean rust forecasting system was adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the platform for nationwide monitoring of the disease, which could cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the country's soybean crops.

"In addition to the soybean rust system, there were several other models being used by Penn State researchers and industry to predict the emergence of various pests in tree fruit, vegetables and field crops," said John Tooker, assistant professor of entomology. "Working with commercial firm ZedX Inc., developers were able to unify most of these other systems under the PA PIPE umbrella."

PA PIPE relies on site-specific temperature, moisture and other climate data -- to within a six-kilometer resolution -- to provide seven-day forecasts on the development of pest populations. This information can save time and money by allowing growers to see when an insect pest is at a stage that causes damage in the field or when the pest is gone for the season and no longer a source of worry.

"For instance, if we know an insect is likely to cause plant damage at a particular larval stage, and we know that it reaches that stage after so many days at a certain temperature, then we can use climate data to forecast when that damage is likely to happen," Tooker explained.

Likewise, fungal plant diseases are most likely to develop at certain temperatures and levels of moisture and humidity, noted Beth Gugino, assistant professor of plant pathology. "Merging these climate and biological data can help growers to take measures to manage diseases at the optimal time," she said. "Such forecasts also can show growers when pesticides won't help, reducing the unnecessary use of chemicals."

Indeed, pest-prediction programs known as Tom-Cast and BLIGHTCAST -- developed in part by Penn State scientists -- have been used by producers for years to manage early blight and late blight in tomatoes and potatoes. Gugino said growers have credited these programs with saving millions of dollars that, without the forecast information, would have been spent on unneeded scheduled spraying of fungicides to protect their crops.

The foundation of those programs is now integrated into PA PIPE, which represents a new way to disseminate this important information, Gugino added.

PA PIPE maps also can tell growers specifically when they should be scouting their fields for insect eggs, other life stages or early damage symptoms. Growers who use biological controls can determine when to release biological control agents, targeting a vulnerable development stage of the pest. Organic and conventional growers can avoid damage from a particular pest by knowing the stage it will be in relative to when the crop is planted and developing in the field.

Another advantage offered by PA PIPE is geographic specificity. For example, Tooker said, "In a state like Pennsylvania, because of the climatic variation and the weather being affected by topography, events such as egg hatch could be three or four weeks earlier in the warmest part of the state compared to the coolest part. With our forecasting models, we can tell growers in, say, Potter County, which is cooler, that they're still three weeks away from egg hatch. But if you're in Chester County, it's happening right now."

The researchers said the system offers information for a limited number of key pests, but work is underway to incorporate additional pest species. And they caution that the information is just one tool to aid growers in making pest-management decisions.

"PA PIPE does not take the place of scouting, trapping and monitoring," Gugino said. "The site should be used in conjunction with other sources of information, such as local extension educators and crop consultants who can help interpret the data and make recommendations."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010