Now is the time to keep a sharp eye out for ergot

When the final tally is in, this crop year is likely to show up as wetter than most years on the Prairies, and that’s just what fungus likes.

Ergot is no exception, and true to form, it has shown up in some cereal and hay fields. In addition to affecting yield and increasing dockage, ergot is a danger to livestock when present in feed grain or hay.

Sherri Roberts, a regional crops specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture in Weyburn, said she has found ergot in fall rye and it has also shown up in native grasses in the province’s southeast.

Ergot was an issue two years ago in prairie crops but Roberts said she doubts it will be as much of a problem this year.

“I don’t think it’s as bad, because people were alerted to it and they were more intelligent in their crop rotations, realizing they had the problem at that time,” she said.

“Two years ago, I don’t think people were looking for it. They weren’t as conscious that it was out there. We’ve run a special project in the ministry and this year they were specifically out there looking for it in fall rye, and we did find it.”

Ergot spreads by spores but can only affect cereals and grasses when they are flowering. This year, Roberts said rye crops were just beginning to flower when rain started to fall.

That extended flowering, which lengthened the period in which ergot could attack.

That might also have affected the amount of ergot in native grasses and hay crops. If it is detected in those, Roberts recommended action.

“A lot of times it will start on the edge of a field so you can, oftentimes depending on the size of your swather, just come in and take the tops off that one part of the field and then just dump it.

“Don’t bale it. Don’t use it. But its going to be there in the ground and it’s going to be there for two years, so if they’ll stay out of susceptible crops they can pretty much get rid of the source of the inoculum that’s creating the problem.”

If there are any doubts about ergot in hay, producers should have the material tested so they know infection levels. That will provide guidance on whether it can be fed to livestock.

Ergot can remain viable in the soil for two years, so a problem one year can mean a problem in the next, depending on weather and moisture conditions.

“It can only infect when that plant is flowering so if you don’t let those plants develop to that maturity level, yeah, you’re going to be cutting your hay earlier and getting a reduction in your yield but you’re not going to have to gamble with having ergot in your hay crop.”

As for cereals, a heavier seeding rate will reduce the number of tillers and shorten the flowering period, limiting opportunities for ergot. Crop rotation is also an effective tool.

Saskatchewan fall rye varieties are all moderately susceptible to the fungus.

The Canadian Grain Commission has specific tolerance levels for ergot contamination in grain. They vary by crop type and grade.

However, toxicity to livestock is the major worry involving infected crops.

At high levels, ergot-infected feed can cause gangrene in animals’ tails, ears and feet and lower levels lead to reduced appetite and lower growth and reproductive rates.

Dr. Reynold Bergen, science director with the Beef Cattle Research Council, said in a blog that 0.1 to 0.3 percent ergot bodies, by weight, in cattle feed pose a risk to the animals. That is five to 20 ergot bodies per litre of grain.

Ergot is also toxic to other livestock, although some species are more tolerant than others.

About ergot

  • it is a fungus called Claviceps purpurea and occurs naturally
  • it appears as hard black bodies in grain and affects grasses, wheat, barley, rye, triticale and oats
  • the fungus overwinters in the soil and spreads by spores
  • crop losses most likely in wet years
  • extended flowering means more ergot
  • causes reduced number of kernels in head and downgrades crop quality
  • there are no registered fungicides in Canada for control or suppression
  • it is harmful to livestock when consumed

Source: Alberta Agriculture, Ag Canada

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