Fungal disease | Farmers are reporting lots of the disease in crops coming off the field
Ergot has raised its ugly black head this year in Alberta and Saskatchewan crops.
The fungal disease can affect almost all cereals, reducing grade and adding toxicity to feed that can be fatal to animals.
“We are hearing that a lot of Sask-atchewan and basically at least the southern half of Alberta is having troubles with ergot, especially in that Lethbridge country,” said Alberta Agriculture forage specialist Barry Yaremcio.
“In some places the infestations are quite high. It’s not pretty.”
Ergot worries typically surface in the winter livestock feeding season, but farmers are sounding the alarm now, after seeing ergot-laden crops come off the field.
Barry Blakley, veterinary biomedical sciences researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, said he used to get two or three calls per year about ergot.
Now he’s getting five calls per day.
“It’s probably the major mycotoxin problem we are seeing in Western Canada today and it seems to be getting worse,” said Blakley.
He and his research team have set up analysis for four of the six major ergot alkaloids. They will use it to determine what levels of ergot are safe to feed livestock.
Previous methods involved counting the number of ergot kernels in a sample.
“We’ve had people that, based on the old standard of .1 to .3 percent, were feeding it … and (the animals) get sick. So obviously that method of estimating the concentration is not perfect.”
By calculating a total among four alkaloids, Blakley said a more accurate measure of safety could be achieved.
“If that number is above, and this is for cattle rations, 100 to 200 parts per billion, then we declare the sample problematic or potentially toxic. The one we got in today was about 400, so its double the standard.”
A major concern is the finding of ergot in brome and quack grass, added Blakley. That means ergot can spread from ditches to fields, unless ditch grass growth is managed.
Ergot can only infect plants when they are flowering, so control of grasses before they reach that stage could be important in its control.
Pigs and horses are most susceptible to ergot toxicity, but problems are often seen in dairy cattle because of their high feed intake.
Once animals eat ergot, effects including lameness and gangrene are irreversible.
Ergot can be cleaned from grain, using either a gravity table or the more modern colour sorters available at most seed cleaning plants and some grain terminals.
Yaremcio said rates for that are 30 to 40 cents per bushel, which might be worth it if higher grades can be achieved or feed quality can be preserved.