Northern Wyoming Daily News - Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

By Marcus Huff
Staff Writer 

Ergot disease spreading to other crops

Toxic fungus not limited to barley in the Basin


September 13, 2016

WORLAND – “I kind of started noticing this stuff in the grass about two years ago, but I wasn’t sure what it was” says Bill Wilson, inspecting his sorghum plants north of Worland. “Now it’s everywhere.”

This year, Wilson first noticed the ergot kernels invading his sorghum buds about a week ago.

“There used to be barley farming all around me out here, and that burning, but they’ve pretty much rotated to sugar beets now,” said Wilson.

As a lumberjack by profession, Wilson is familiar with tree fungus and how it spreads, and has a theory about ergot, as well. “When you burn a tree with mistletoe fungus, that stuff just spreads worse ‘cause the heat pulls it up into the sky and drops it down again. I think this ergot is doing the same thing.”

While Wilson was growing sorghum for personal consumption, Wilson is more concerned for local ranchers and farmers if the disease is indeed spreading. “Man, those farmers can till and rotate their crops, but if this gets to livestock grazing areas or into their feed, these ranchers are going to be dead in the water.”

According to a report by Washakie County Extension Educator Caitlin Youngquist, livestock or poultry that consume even small amounts of contaminated grains or grasses can develop clinical symptoms of ergotism. Cattle are more susceptible than sheep. Symptoms can vary based on several factors, but often include excitability, staggering, convulsions, backward arching of the back and gangrenous tissue on feet and sloughing of tissue on ears and tails.

The only cure for ergotism is to identify and remove the contaminated feed source.

Recently, a local barley farmer (who wishes to remain anonymous due to contract obligations with MillerCoors) described to the Daily News an instance in which a dead deer was found on their property, showing possible signs of ergotism, including gangrenous hooves. When Wyoming Fish and Game did not respond to inspect the animal as requested, the landowners disposed of the carcass. The same farmer predicts that the disease is more widespread locally than MillerCoors had originally acknowledged.

“The impact to livestock and wildlife is a very real possibility,” noted Youngquist. “It seems to be a bit of a perfect storm.” Youngquist advises that all livestock growers inspect their feed and seed for possible ergot contamination. “This stuff could be in hay fields, ditch banks, really anywhere. We’re already seeing it in various grasses, obviously,” said Youngquist.

In August around 50 local barley growers and concerned citizens attended a special meeting at the Worland Community Center Complex to address the issue. Led by University of Wyoming Department of Plant Science Professor William Stump, MillerCoors Agronomist Dave Dougherty, and Youngquist, the meeting concentrated on management of the disease, causes and possible remedies.

Grains such as barley, oats, rye, wheat and durum, and grasses such as brome, rye, foxtail and orchard grass are susceptible to the disease, virtually untreatable with conventional pesticides. The fungus produces toxic compounds called ergot alkaloids, which can cause artery shrinkage in humans.

“I will admit that we [Miller/Coors] had some ergot in our seeds,” added Dougherty.

According to MillerCoors 2009 malting standards, sample barley may contain up to .1 percent weight of ergot kernels.

The number of acres impacted by ergot has not been disclosed by MillerCoors at this time.

Explaining that there has been a rise of ergot in Big Horn Basin barley over the last three to four years, Dougherty attributed the increase to a variety of practices, including minimum tillage in exchange for burning, sprinkler irrigation (which spreads spore-contaminated water), late summer seeding, and inadequate monitoring for the disease along ditches and in grass.

MillerCoors media representatives have agreed to answer a series of questions from the Daily News regarding Big Horn Basin ergot levels, and their answers will be featured in a future article.


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