A fungal disease, ergot generally affects barley, spring wheat, durum, native and tame forage species, and roadside, pasture and hayland grasses. Ergot has reappeared in Alberta because of soggy spring conditions in recent years. The disease generally appears as a dark, hardened body, called sclerotia, in harvested grain. While it does not cause huge yield loss, it can lead to being downgraded at the elevator or cause grain rejection. The alkaloids found within sclerotia can be harmful to livestock.
The disease has two distinct phases. During the primary stage, sclerotia germinates in the soil. Next, wind-borne spores develop from the germinating sclerotia and attack crop flowers. Soon after, the secondary infection sets in, causing black discolouration and replacement of the seed with hardened sclerotia come harvest time.
- Test soils for copper availability. Copper fertilizer may be needed if levels are below 1 ppm in many soils.
- Use a rotation with non-host crops to reduce inoculum levels. Ergots rarely survive more than a year in the soil. All broadleaf crops are not susceptible to ergot.
- Bury crop residue 2.5 cm or more into soil to prevent spore-producing “mushrooms” from emerging above ground.
- Delay swathing if possible—especially in headland areas—because windy weather will shake the ergots from standing grain.
- Mow headland grasses on a regular, annual basis well before seed set. This will prevent ergot production.
- Harvest headland area swaths separately because they are likely to have the highest ergot contamination.
- Store ergot-infected grain intended for seed for two years. Ergot will die, but the grain will remain viable for many years.