Soil lacking copper ripe for serious ergot problem

Ergot and copper walk hand in hand in farm fields.

Ieuan Evans of Agritrend has long pronounced it so, and in a year that some agrologists are suggesting might be prone to a serious outbreak, he suggests producers take their soil composition seriously.

Evans, who has been a leading voice in soil agronomy and plant pathology in Alberta for four decades, said nearly 30 percent of the province’s soils and up to 20 percent of Saskatchewan’s are deficient in copper.

Central Alberta is especially short, he said.

In years with lots of damp soil root reach can be limited, especially in heavier, black land.

“The copper might be there, but it is down six inches or so, and the plants don’t reach that far,” he said.

“The science is there, we have done it, it isn’t just me saying it.… I know there are lot of folks who refuse to make the link, but this is nothing new.”

He said lack of copper leads to pollen sterility, and wheat and barley plants tend to open their flowers when they don’t have enough of the micronutrient as part of their hunt for better pollen.

Ergot spores are able to access the heads while the flowers are open and create infection.

Copper deficiency can sometimes be found as a symptom in cereals known as pig-tailing, where leaves will pinch off and curl laterally.

Plants require copper for enzyme activation, hormone balancing and energy systems.

Jeff Schoenau of the University of Saskatchewan said copper might not be a magic bullet for ergot control, but it is a tool that farmers can use effectively, often with foliar applications.

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