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Watch out for ergot this season

Seeding is coming up, which brings up concerns about ergot infestations in crops.

Seeding is coming up, which brings up concerns about ergot infestations in crops.

Ergot is a fungus that affects mainly cereal crops except for oats. In winter, it looks like a black kernel, but in spring it germinates into a mushroom-like substance. It contains seven alkaloids that cause different problems in humans and animals.

“As a whole, they poison the animal and restrict blood flow,” said Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture.

Animals who consume ergot can also slough hooves and lose hair from their tails. Ergot consumption is also linked to reduction in growth and reproductive rates. Any animal can be affected by ergot, including humans.

“The whole works, it will affect all of them,” Yaremcio said.

There are guidelines for how much ergot is safe to feed animals. However, Yaremcio says that much of the information on ergot has come from the U.S.

Prairie Diagnostic Services in Saskatoon has been analyzing ergot samples for the last eight months and found that ergot in western Canada is much stronger than ergot found in the U.S.

“What (information) we’ve been using in the past is completely wrong,” he said.

The only way to really know if the ergot content in grains is safe to feed animals is to send it in to Saskatoon to be tested.

People handling ergot-infested crops should wear a dust mask, as breathing in infected dust can cause scabs to form in the nose and irritate the lungs.

“When handling grain, you’ve got to have a little more TLC,” Yaremcio said.

While ergot doesn’t affect the yield of a crop, its presence can result in rejection or downgrading at the elevator.

The Government of Alberta says that cool, damp weather in late spring or early summer is the best condition for ergot to grow.

“Since no seed treatments, pesticides or resistant varieties are available as control measures, prevention is the only way to manage this disease,” Neil Whatley, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said in a news release.

One of the best ways to prevent ergot is crop rotation. Ergot spores are only viable in the soil for one or two years, so refraining from planting cereal crops for that time helps to stop the spread of ergot. As well, grasses at the field edge should be mown to prevent the spread of ergot.