NDSU Extension - Dickey County


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Ergot in Small Grains

Breana Kiser, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent

ErgotThere are many reports about ergot in small grains and elevators are rejecting many loads of small grain. There are a few options for ergot wheat that I will touch on. 

Ergot can cause 5-10% yield loss in small grain cereals. Wheat or durum is graded as “ergoty” when it contains more that 0.05% by weight of ergot sclerotia; barely, oat, and triticale are graded when they contain more than 0.1% by weight, and rye is graded when it contains more than 0.3% by weight. Extreme losses in wheat due to ergot are rare. Ergot contains very strong alkaloids that cause ergotsim. The major significance of the disease is that sclerotia is poisonous to humans who eat contaminated food and animals that consumer contaminated feed.  In humans, ergotism can cause violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, and skin crawling sensations. In livestock, it causes gangrene symptoms of hears, hooves, and tails, raise temperature in cattle, and can result in abortions and lack of mammary gland development leading to reduces or no milk production.

For the next growing season, there is no varieties in ND that are known to have ergot resistance. Varieties and market classes with short flowering periods are less susceptible. Any stressors that prolong the opening of florets will increase the risk of ergot.

Ergot is a fungal disease of the seed heads of cereals and grasses including rye, triticale, wheat, durum, barley, oat, quackgrass, brome grass, wheat grass, etc. The masses of fungal mycelium also known as sclerotia are produced instead of the normal grain. This fungal disease occurs when there is cool, wet weather at the heading stage into the flowering. 

Within small grain, the first sign of infection by the ergot fungus is the appearance of a sugary yellowish slime (honeydew) on the heads at or soon after flowering. Later, ergot develop and are the most noticeable and characteristic sign of ergot. Ergots are horn-like, purple-black, and 4-10 times the normal size of grain. On the head, they replace developing grain and protrude beyond the glumes.

Management of ergot includes scouting fields before harvesting to determine heavily affected parts of the field such as headlands. Harvest heavily affected parts of the field separately and take the grain to the elevator separately or destroy it by burying or burning if the sclerotia content is very high.  Typically, high levels of ergot occur around the edges of the field because of the proximity to surrounding grasses that often are the source of the inoculum.

If harvesting has already occurred; most, but not all, ergots can be removed from grain by cleaning it with gravity-type cleaning equipment. This is an edition expense but can be a way to salvage some of the grain.

Survival rate of the sclerotia on the soil surface is about one year. Therefore, crop rotation for at least one year with non-host crops such as legumes and corn reduce the risk of carryover infections from sclerotia within a field. Plow fields with heavy ergot infestation to bury sclerotia. Burying sclerotia more than 1-inch dep will prevent them from germinating the next growing season.


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