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Seeing Increased Ergot Levels?

By Nicole Montreuil, AAg, Crops Extension Specialist, Outlook

Crops extension specialists across the province have been receiving increased reports of ergot in cereals. Ergot is a plant disease caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Symptoms become evident during kernel formation when ergot bodies are formed in place of kernels. The ergot bodies (sclerotia) are formed from a hard mass of fungal mycelium and are the over-wintering structures in the disease cycle.

Prolonged wet soils in the spring promote germination of ergot bodies. This year, several spots in the province experienced these conditions. Honeydew stage is the second stage in the ergot disease cycle where the sticky honeydew spores infect the florets. High insect populations during this stage can transfer the sticky spores to other florets, increasing infection levels. In many parts of the province, including dryer areas, higher insect populations were seen. Cloudy and high moisture conditions, including heavy dews are also needed during this stage. Only occasionally will the right environmental conditions and plant development stages coincide to result in widespread ergot problems. The last widespread outbreaks of ergot in Saskatchewan were in 1999 and 2008.

Ergot alone does not typically cause significant yield loss, but economic losses may result due to rejection of grain or downgrading at the elevator. Guidelines are set by the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC). In 2014, the CGC revised the ergot tolerance in most wheat classes, so knowing the updated levels before hauling your grain is important to avoid unnecessary downgrading. The reason for low tolerance is that ergot bodies contain alkaloids, or toxic chemicals, that remain active even after food or feed processing. Being informed of tolerance levels before hauling to the elevators will help producers ensure they aren’t excessively docked.

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