Ditch bewitched: ergot fungus thrives where farmers fail to tread

CARLYLE, Sask. — On a nearly perfect July morning, with blue sky and few puffy clouds, Chris Birk wandered into a durum field along Highway 13 in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Birk, a CWB farm service co-ordinator who was leading farm journalists and commodity analysts on a crop tour of the region, pointed out a problem with the durum after walking only a few metres into the field.

Black bodies were attached to many of the durum spikelets and it was obvious that this crop, or at least the patch close to the highway, had a high rate of ergot infection.

Sean Thompson, a livestock specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said ergot has become more common in the province.

As a result, the government launched an initiative this summer to assess the breadth and severity of the problem.

“We know in the grain, once it gets combined, it’s very toxic (to livestock) and potent in the mature seed, but is it also the same when you first get the infection?” he said.

“That’s what we don’t know.”

Saskatchewan Agriculture employees are scouting for ergot and will take samples of the fungus.

“With these weekly samples, (we can) measure the alkaloid level, the toxin in ergot, and see how it changes throughout the growing season,” he said.

“With that information, we’re hoping to come up with some recommendation for livestock producers of when it might be safe to harvest grain, feed or silage if they know ergot is present.”

Ministry employees haven’t found much ergot in crops this summer in the southeast.

“Our forage specialist has (only) heard one report of a field contaminated with it, down by Whitewood,” said Sherri Roberts, a regional crops specialist from Weyburn.

Many crops were behind normal development as of late July, and ergot hadn’t appeared in most cereal crops in Saskatchewan.

However, ministry employees are finding the disease in ditch grasses, which have become a prime source of ergot spores.

“Over half of the ditches I looked in (around Watrous) had some sort of ergot infection in them,” Thompson said.

Ministry employees have also reported ergot in ditches near Tisdale, Moose Jaw and Swift Current.

“Typically, that (ditches) is where the inoculum is going to come from, and (this summer) we’ve seen quite a bit.”

Thompson said it’s easy to detect ergot on a brome grass in a ditch. Infected plants produce a sticky “honeydew” at flowering time.

“The heads kind of stick together. If you rub your fingers on it your fingers will be quite sticky,” he said.

“Also, (growers) will be able to see ergot bodies in the brome grass…. It looks like a brome seed, just a little bit longer.”

Ergot spores from ditches are more likely to infect a cereal crop if it’s cool and wet because those conditions prolong the flowering period.

“This is when (cereals) are infected if ergot is present. It will be a couple of days after infection … that you see that honeydew,” Thompson said.

“Another five to 10 days after that is when you’ll start seeing the ergot bodies form.”

Thompson said weather and agronomic practices are behind the rise in ergot contaminated cereals in Saskatchewan.

The ergot fungus has thrived as excessive rainfall and wetter conditions become more frequent, or possibly the new normal.

The popularity of conservation tillage is a factor because ergot can’t spread if it’s underneath the soil.

“A good cultivation will typically bury the residue,” Thompson said.

“Ergot, the sclerotia, won’t come out of around an inch or two inches of dirt.”

Growing an oilseed or pulse crop following a cereal helps control the fungus’s spread, but there is still the problem of ergot and brome grass.

Mowing ditches can control ergot’s spread from brome grasses to cereal crops, and anecdotal evidence from Alberta suggests ergot is less prevalent in counties that cut ditches.

“In Alberta, in some counties, they’re mowing all their ditches in early summer,” Thompson said.

“So the grass doesn’t mature and you don’t see the ergot.”

The toxic alkaloids in ergot affect cattle in a variety of ways, but the most common consequence is blood vessel constriction. Obstructed blood flow means extremities such as feet, ears and tails can fall off in cold weather.

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