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Ergot in wheat. (Photos supplied by Andrew Friskop, North Dakota State University)

Ergot rears its ugly head

Krist Olson got a nasty surprise this fall. For the first time in his farming experience, the Thief River Falls, Minn., farmer was hit with ergot, a fungal disease, in his wheat crop.

"Actually, it was my dad who spotted it and pointed it out to me. And he hadn't seen it for many, many years," says Olson, who's been farming since 2008. "So I sure wasn't expecting it this year."

Olson isn't alone in dealing with disease. Wheat farmers in parts of the Upper Midwest, especially south-central North Dakota, are reporting above-average incidence of ergot this harvest. That, in turn, has led some grain elevators to impose discounts on, or even reject, some newly harvested wheat infected with the disease.

It's too early to say how widespread the problem, but the area's wheat industry will come through regardless, says Jim Peterson, policy and marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission. North Dakota is the nation's leading producer of spring wheat.

"This a challenge, but it's manageable," he says.

Ergot is not a new disease and has struck other major wheat-producing areas in the past, too. And ergot-infected grain can be cleaned by grain elevators or farmers with the proper equipment, Peterson says.

Ergot occurs in hundreds of grass species, including wheat. Strands of the fungus will replace the developing wheat kernel, then harden and turn into a black-purple structures known as sclerotia, according to information from North Dakota State University.

Ergot contains a number of alkaloids that are harmful to both livestock and cattle, with hallucinations one of symptoms. Some experts link ergot-infected rye to the Salem Witch Trials.

Because of its health risks, there are strict thresholds — 0.05 percent by weight for wheat — on how much ergot is allowed in food. Cleaning infected grain can bring it below those thresholds.

The overall quality of the area's wheat crop is otherwise good, "so this (ergot) is frustrating," especially when it wasn't expected to be a problem, Peterson says.

Ergot generally is associated with cool, wet weather, and the region's 2018 crop season has been mostly hot and dry overall. Given that, "I really wasn't expecting this (higher incidence of ergot)," says Andrew Friskop, NDSU extension plant pathologist in cereal grains.

In retrospect, Friskop says, it appears that a stretch of cool, wet weather in late June and early July in some parts of the region triggered the disease in wheat tillers, or shoots that grow after the initial shoot comes from a seed.

Dealing with it

Scouting wheat fields in advance of harvest can be helpful. If some parts of a field are particularly infected with ergot, harvested wheat from those parts should be stored separately from grain from the rest of the field, according to information from NDSU.

Fungicides aren't thought to be effective in managing the disease, and there aren't any wheat varieties with known resistance to it, NDSU says.

But proper tillage practices can help to manage the disease, as can mowing weedy grasses that might spread the disease. Crop rotation also is beneficial — though, based on Olson's experience not a sure-fire prevention tool.

He'd raised corn or soybeans for at least six years on 2018 wheat fields hit with ergot, reducing the likelihood of ergot of those fields. Nonetheless, ergot stuck them, Olson says.

"You think you're doing everything right, and then you find out there's a problem," Olson says.

For more information, go to www.ag.ndsu.edu/cpr/plant-pathology/ergot-being-reported-in-wheat-08-16-18.