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Let’s get this story on track once and for all. Ergot, as we know it in Canada, is a fungal infection of cereal grains and grasses. The word ergot is derived from the French word argot, meaning a spur. Ergots form within grain heads and displace the developing seed or grain. Ergot size may depend on grain size — very big on rye heads but small on open pollinated wild or cultivated grasses. All are similar in shape and purple when cut open.
Ergots are compact fungal masses, which germinate the following spring after vernalization, just like winter wheat or rye. They germinate to form tiny mushrooms, several to an ergot. These mushrooms release fungal spores in summer. If these spores land on an open cereal flower, they will grow to form another ergot.
Ergots are highly poisonous to humans and all animals, causing very painful symptoms and even death. Ergots were the original source of LSD (lysergic acid dimethylamine). Ergot preparations were also used in the past to induce abortions in humans.
Ergots in the grain mix can be distinguished from sclerotinia fungal sclerodes found in canola and other crops by the fact that ergots are generally regular in shape from the same host, whereas sclerodes are highly irregular in shape from pinhead to thumbnail in size.
Sclerodes that are cut open are pure white inside as opposed to the internal purple colour of ergots. Soft, squishy ergot-like bodies mean you have mice in your grain bins.
Wheat, barley and oats are fully resistant to ergot infection. Over the past centuries, many people and even armies died from eating ergot-contaminated rye bread, particularly in countries such as Poland and France. Black rye bread was developed to hide ergot contamination.
Wheat, barley and oats are all close pollinated, or as we say self-pollinated. This trait made them valuable as ergot-free grain crops. Since wheat, barley and oats do not cross pollinate the closed flowers, they do not let in the ergot spores. They are truly ergot resistant.
I have been dismayed over the years to see wheat organizations in Canada funding research to look for ergot resistance in wheat. What a waste of research funding. I was equally annoyed to hear prominent agrologists state that ergot infection was caused by prolonged flowering and cool, wet weather in cereal crops.
Bingo. If wheat, barley or oats had open flowers, how would seed growers manage? If you are a seed grower of rye, then your seed field must be two miles away from other rye crops. Why? Because pollen from open rye flowers can travel for miles.
When you grow wheat, barley or oats for seed, the fields can be just feet apart and there is no cross pollination. Simply put, these cereal flowers do not open. They pollinate with closed flowers, and only afterwards do they extrude or push out the now useless pollen anthers, since the job of pollination has been done.
So why do we see ergot infection in wheat, barley and oats?
Simply put, it is copper deficiency. A lack or deficiency of copper results in failure to form viable pollen in these normally closed flowers. The result is these closed flowers in wheat, barley and oats will open in the hope for stray pollen. That’s when ergot infection takes place along with cross pollination.
If you have ergot in your seed grain, then you can bet that cross pollination has also taken place (i.e. your pedigreed grain has been compromised). Do not ever buy seed grain with ergot contamination since the ergot tells you the seed grain is sure to be cross pollinated from stray pollen.
This ergot infection mechanism was worked out by many research scientists and technicians in Alberta in the 1980s and 1990s. We knew early on from work carried out by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that wheat yields in many parts of the province would respond spectacularly to copper fertilization applied at several pounds of actual copper per acre.
In our work, solving lodging in wheat and poor-quality grain was connected with soil copper amendments. This resulted in major grain yield increases and quality. One of our technicians alerted us to the fact that ergots only occurred in grain plots that did not receive supplemental copper. Simply put, adequate copper fertilizer eliminated ergot in wheat, barley and oats, and contributed to huge increases in grain yield, grain quality and the prevention of lodging. Two copper-based enzymes are also essential for lignin formation (straw strength in cereal grains).
Ergot research, observations and facts
Some 25 years ago, a technician and I came across a field of wheat in central Saskatchewan that was 90 per cent wheat and 10 per cent rye. Every rye plant had one or more ergots and not a single wheat plant had any ergots. I even offered my technical help $50 if he could find a single wheat head with ergot. The soil in this wheat field must have had adequate copper nutrient levels.
If ergot-infested grain is used for seed, the ergots will not germinate after planting since they have not vernalized (i.e. spent the cold, wet winter outside). On the other hand, if you seed fall rye with ergot contamination, they will germinate the following spring and create problems since, like the rye, they get vernalized.
Fellow researchers and I set out spring demonstration plots for many years with wheat, barley, oats, rye and triticale on plots that had ergots scattered over the site the previous fall. Every year, ergots showed up on the rye in large numbers, occasional ergots on the triticale and never any ergots on the wheat, barley or oat cultivars. This site had good soil copper levels at around three parts per million and more.
In 1995, researchers Mantle and Swan in the United Kingdom grew male sterile wheat in an attempt to produce wheat hybrids in the manner of corn. The work ended when they had major ergot infestations in the male sterile wheat. That’s why we have no hybrid wheat.
Researchers Azourou and Sourvre in France (1993) found that copper deficiency induced nearly complete pollen sterility in wheat, causing severe yield losses.
In Australia, Graham (1975) found male sterility in wheat that was deficient in copper.
For further reading on copper deficiency consult the following sources:
Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease, pages 177-188, “Copper and Plant Disease” by Evans, Huber and Solberg (2000).
Alberta Agriculture’s Agri-Facts, “Copper Deficiency: Diagnosis and Correction” Agdex 532-3. The yield on copper-deficient soil jumps from 17 to 60-plus bushels of wheat.
Ontario’s Agronomy Guide for Field Crops (2002), page 35. When organic muck soils are first brought into cultivation, copper should be applied to the soil at 14 kilograms per hectare, or 12.5 pounds per acre for each of the first three years. Alberta has 100,000 acres of black peat soils north of Edmonton. There are 12.5 pounds of copper in 50 pounds of bluestone or copper sulphate. Therefore, they apply 150 pounds of bluestone per acre in Ontario over three years in order to make these soils fully crop productive.
In conclusion, if your cereal crops, particularly wheat, are subject to severe lodging, low yields, low quality, delayed maturity and ergot infestation — think copper. Get the facts. Certain Group 1 herbicides can also interfere with copper metabolism and induce severe copper deficiency, particularly in wheat, resulting in low-yielding lodged crops.
In other words, get your soils tested for copper levels if you get ergot in wheat, barley or oats and if crops lodge easily and the grain is poor quality.
When you grew 30 bushels of wheat, a 1.5 parts per million copper level was good. If you want to grow 100 bushels of wheat your soil copper levels should be around 2.5 to 3.0 ppm, probably supplemented with foliar copper at the flag stage. For some reason, foliar copper applied at anthesis on copper-deficient soil causes a yield reduction and higher ergot levels.
Typically, copper-deficient soils have high organic levels of seven or more per cent or are sandy or silty. Alberta has perhaps 30 per cent of low or deficient cropland short of copper, while in Manitoba and Saskatchewan perhaps no more than 10 per cent of cropland may be deficient.
Heavily manured soils can become copper deficient and likely the major cause of lodging because copper becomes tied up in the manure. Copper enzymes are key components to lignin (straw strength) formation in cereals.
Some other causes of ergot in cereals
Under hot, severe drought conditions in mid-July, when cereals are heading up, the temperature in the seed head is enough to kill off (sterilize) the pollen. The female part, the stigma, stays alive, and if you get rain and cooling to follow, the cereal flowers will open and ergot spores can now infect the grain heads. Oats seem to be the most susceptible. I have only seen this rare type of ergot infection twice in 45 years in Alberta.
In Ontario, I found a crop of wheat that had ergot infection in the lower parts of the field. Colleagues of mine at the University of Guelph said the ergot infection was a result of a late May frost that killed off the pollen grains in the unopened wheat heads. The wheat heads emerged with viable stigmas (female parts) but no pollen. The open wheat flowers were now susceptible to ergot infection.
Crop consultants in southern Alberta, who were aware of copper fertility and ergot infection, found ergot in their clients’ crops. They noted ergot infection could sometimes be caused by light showers of small hailstones that broke open wheat flowers allowing ergot to enter the damaged flowers.
In my last article, called “Bring on the Boron,” I mentioned in Europe in the 1980s and in Quebec in late 1990, researchers found that soils severely deficient in boron (i.e. 0.1 to 0.2 ppm) resulted in severe yield loss and outbreaks of ergot, particularly in barley. Boron is an essential mineral for water balance in plants and its presence is critical for the pollen tube to reach the ovule (female part) of the seed. In a severe deficiency or absence of boron, seed formation will not take place and ergot spores can now enter the unfertilized barley flowers. Both barley and wheat flowers will open wide if self-pollination fails. Boron plays a critical role in seed set in all seed crops including canola.
Copper is your canary in the coal mine
Agrologists may tell you that ergot infection is caused by cool, wet weather and prolonged flowering. Set up a bet with them if you would like to win a few dollars. Unfortunately, out there in the agricultural world, there are individuals who cannot say the phrase, “I was wrong” or “I made a mistake.” These individuals would rather continue to mislead producers rather than face the facts.
I conclude by saying that 99.9 per cent of ergot outbreaks in all cereal grains, excepting open pollinated rye or occasionally in triticale, are caused by a minor to major copper deficiency. Copper is your canary in the coal mine when it comes to pointing out micronutrient deficiencies. Ignore cropland that is shown to be significantly deficient in copper and lose your shirt on the dismal yield and inferior quality of your cereal crops, particularly wheat.
Banish low yields, low quality, lodging and ergot contamination — ensure that you soil test for copper and think copper nutrition.
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