Copper deficiency causes ergot, declares ‘Dr. Copper’

Alberta plant disease and micronutrient specialist Ieuan Evans has pounded his pulpit for the last 15 years proclaiming the gospel of copper.


To Evans, the evidence and science is clear. Ergot, the grade-robbing fungus in cereal grains, is caused by a deficiency in copper.


About 30 percent of the fields in Alberta and 10 to 15 percent of the fields in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are deficient in copper. Sandy soil and soil high in organic matter are chronically deficient in copper, especially in central Alberta.


Heavy black soil may be low in copper in the top six inches, but in normal years the roots reach down to the lower layers to pick up copper. In wet years, the saturated subsoil can cause copper deficiency.


Convincing agronomists, farmers and other scientists that copper and ergot are connected is like trying to convert a Baptist to a Catholic, Evans said recently during a crop production day at the UFA farm store in Camrose.


“There are people with their minds made up,” said Evans, who has been dubbed Dr. Copper.


“You’ve got these loony bins who go around and say I don’t think it’s copper that causes ergot. We’re not talking beliefs. We’re talking science, actual stuff. We did this work year after year on copper in this area. Copper deficiency is a huge problem,” said Evans.


“Who the hell cares about beliefs and opinions. These are facts, and facts are the things that give you the answers.” 


He said his arguments are supported by a number of research papers, including his own research during his time with Alberta Agriculture.


Evans believes that a deficiency of copper in the soil is why some crops get ergot and others don’t when they’re subjected to the same environmental conditions.


“I’ve gone through fields in Saskatchewan where there was 10 percent rye contamination of wheat. Every rye plant had ergot. Not a single bloody wheat plant — and we spent three hours in the field — had any ergot in it and there was tons of inoculums going around that field,” said Evans.


Wheat and barley plants don’t open their flowers when they have enough copper. Copper deficiency causes pollen sterility. 


The normally closed pollinated flowers are forced to open because they can’t get pollen. The flowers can be infected with ergot spores when they are open.


“Ergot doesn’t crawl in like an insect. It has to float in. If you have low copper, you get pollen sterility. Pollen sterility causes the bloody wheat flower to open up like a crocus or a tulip. If it opens up, it’s liable to get ergot.”


Knowing there is a copper deficiency and solving the problem of copper deficiency isn’t easy. Foliar applications of copper during the boot stage are effective treatments. Foliar copper applied at late tillering will also increase yields.


Fall applications of copper sulfate after the crop is removed are the easiest and will likely have the longest impact, said Ryan Immerkar, an Agri-Trend crop adviser from Swan River, Man. One of his clients spent $20,000 applying copper sulfate to a field last fall. 


Immerkar said ergot wasn’t a large problem, but the field always yielded low compared to other wheat fields.


Canola will be seeded this spring and wheat next year because it takes time for the copper to be absorbed into the soil.


“We are expecting great things,” said Immerkar.