By: Pierce Paul and Felipe Dalla Lana da Silva
Ear rots differ from each other in terms of the damage they cause (their symptoms), the toxins they produce, and the specific conditions under which they develop. GER leads to grain contamination with mycotoxins, including deoxynivalenol (also known as vomitoxin), and is favored by warm, wet, or humid conditions between silk emergence (R1) and early grain development. However, it should be noted that even when conditions are not ideal for GER development, vomitoxin may still accumulate in infected ears.
A good first step for determining whether you have an ear rot problem is to walk fields between dough and black-layer, before plants start drying down, and observe the ears. The husks of affected ears usually appear partially or completely dead (dry and bleached), often with tinges of the color of the mycelium, spores, or spore-bearing structures of fungus causing the disease. Depending on the severity of the disease, the leaf attached to the base of the diseased ear (the ear leaf) may also die and droop, causing affected plants to stick out between healthy plants with normal, green ear leaves. Peel back the husk and examine suspect ears for typical ear rot symptoms. You can count the number of moldy ears out of ever 50 ears examined, at multiple locations across the field to determine the severity of the problem.
Ear rot symptoms
GIBBERELLA EAR ROT – When natural early-season infections occur via the silk, Gibberella ear rot typically develops as white to pink mold covering the tip to the upper half of the ear. However, infections may also occur at the base of the ear, causing the whitish-pink diseased kernels to develop from the base of the ear upwards. This is particularly true if ears dry down in an upright position and it rains during the weeks leading up to harvest. The Gibberella ear rot fungus may also infect via wounds made by birds or insects, which leads to the mold developing wherever the damage occurs. When severe, Gibberella ear rot is a major concern because the fungus produces several mycotoxins, including vomitoxin, that are harmful to livestock. Once the ear is infected by the fungus, these mycotoxins may be present even if no visual symptoms of the disease are detected. Hogs are particularly sensitive to vomitoxin. Therefore, the FDA advisory level for vomitoxin in corn to be fed to hogs is 5 ppm and this is not to exceed 20% of the diet.
TRICHODERMA EAR ROT – Abundant, thick, greenish mold growing on and between the kernels make Trichoderma ear rot very easy to distinguish from Diplodia, Fusarium, and Gibberella ear rots. However, other greenish ear rots such as Cladosporium, Penicillium and Aspergillus may sometimes be mistaken for Trichoderma ear rot. Like several of the other ear rots, diseased ears are commonly associated with bird, insect, or other types of damage. Another very characteristic feature of Trichoderma ear rots is sprouting (premature germination of the grain on the ear in the field). Although some species of Trichoderma may produce mycotoxins, these toxins are usually not found in Trichoderma-affected ears under our growing conditions.
DIPLODIA EAR ROT: This is one of the most common ear diseases of corn in Ohio. The most characteristic symptom and the easiest way to tell Diplodia ear rot apart from other ear diseases such as Gibberella and Fusarium ear rots is the presence of white mycelium of the fungus growing over and between kernels, usually starting from the base of the ear. Under highly favorable weather conditions, entire ears may become colonized, turn grayish-brown in color and lightweight (mummified), with kernels, cobs, and ear leaves that are rotted and soft. Rotted kernels may germinate prematurely, particularly if the ears remain upright after physiological maturity. Corn is most susceptible to infection at and up to three weeks after R1. Wet conditions and moderate temperatures during this period favor infection and disease development, and the disease tends to be most severe in no-till or reduce-till fields of corn planted after corn. The greatest impact of this disease is grain yield and quality reduction. Mycotoxins have not been associated with this disease in US, although animals often refuse to consume moldy grain.
FUSARIUM EAR ROT: Fusarium ear rot is especially common in fields with bird or insect damage to the ears. Affected ears usually have individual diseased kernels scattered over the ear or in small clusters (associated with insect damage) among healthy-looking kernels. The fungus appears as a whitish mold and infected kernels sometimes develop a brownish discoloration with light-colored streaks (called starburst). Several different Fusarium species are associated with Fusarium ear rot, some of which produce toxins called Fumonisins. Horses are particularly sensitive to Fumonisins, but cattle and sheep are relatively insensitive.
STORAGE: Where possible, harvest affected fields early separately from other fields. Storage is key as poor storage may cause toxin levels to increase. Warm, moist pockets in the grain promote mold development, causing the grain quality to deteriorate and toxin levels to increase. Aeration is important to keep the grain dry and cool. However, it should be noted that while cool temperatures, air circulation, and low moisture levels will minimize fungal growth and toxin production, these will not decrease the level of toxin that was already present in grain going into storage.
- Dry and store harvested grain to below 15% moisture to minimize further mold development and toxin contamination in storage.
- Store dried grain at cool temperatures (36 to 44°F) in clean, dry bins. Moderate to high temperatures are favorable for fungal growth and toxin production.
- Periodically check grain for mold, insects, and temperature.
- If mold is found, send a grain sample for mold identification and analysis to determine if toxins are present and at what level.
- Clean bins and storage units between grain lots to reduce cross-contamination.
The information summarized in this section was taken from factsheet # PLPATH-CER-04 (http://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/plpath-cer-04).