Market Matters Blog

Why All the Fuss Over Ergot?

By Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
Ergot is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea in about 60 plant species, all in the grass family. (Photo courtesy of the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration)

After over four weeks of debate, Egypt's Agriculture Quarantine Authority announced that it would accept the GASC 0.05% ergot specification for imported wheat. However, GASC cancelled recent tenders after continued uncertainty forced traders to reevaluate the risk involved.

Ergot is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea in about 60 plant species, all in the grass family, according to a Washington State University study. In an infected plant, kernels are replaced by ergot bodies or sclerotia, which are black or dark purple and hard. According to a study done by North Dakota State University (NDSU), ergot develops more abundantly during wet seasons. "Wet weather and wet soils favor germination of the ergot bodies and cool, wet weather during flowering favors development of the 'honeydew' stage, the first stage of ergot infection that manifests itself as a white, soft tissue. Dry weather during flowering is detrimental to spore production and germination. Susceptibility to infection among crops increases with any condition that may prolong flowering or cause sterile florets."

Ergot is toxic to both humans and animals, even in small amounts. According to a study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "The ergots contain poisonous compounds known as alkaloids. Ingestion of ergots in grain and flour can cause illness or death in humans and domesticated animals. Ergotism in humans is known as St. Anthony's fire and has occurred several times in human history, with serious consequences. It is thought that the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 resulted from hallucinations and insanity caused by ingestion of ergoty flour."

All domestic animals are susceptible, including birds, and all can ingest ergot in pastures where contaminated grasses are, or in ergoty feed. Cattle seem to be the most susceptible. The NDSU study added, "Animals fed large amounts of ergot over time lose portions of their hooves, ears, tails, combs, and wattles. Spontaneous abortion and loss of milk has occurred in cows and sows fed even small amounts of ergot." Feed containing 0.10% ergot bodies should be regarded as dangerous to livestock.

The problem with ergot-infected wheat is that the toxicity cannot be reduced by cleaning or through processing. There is a chance that ergot may be cleaned out by using a gravity table, but sometimes the ergot kernel is larger than the wheat kernel, making it difficult to remove. Any flour or feed made from ergot-infected wheat will still be toxic.

Because ergot grows in place of a wheat kernel, these bodies can be almost the same size and shape as a wheat kernel. While some of the ergot may dislodge from the plant during harvest, it can remain in the soil, and if conditions remain wet, the new crop and weeds may become infected.

NDSU suggests that to prevent ergot from returning, "deep-plow fields which have a severe ergot infestation to bury the sclerotia. The ergot sclerotia will not germinate if buried more than 1 inch deep." NDSU also warns to "plant only ergot-free seed to avoid introducing or reintroducing the fungus into the field."

NDSU suggests rotating cereals and grasses with non-susceptible crops for one year or longer. "The ergot sclerotia usually do not survive in the soil for more than one year. Therefore, summer fallow or crop rotation to a non-cereal crop for at least one year will help reduce ergot."

Bob Fanning, South Dakota State University Extension plant pathology field specialist, discourages burning due to the loss of valuable residue and does not suggest applying a foliar fungicide at flowering, because the timing and the site of infection are so specific. "The potential of fungicide seed treatment has been raised regarding control of ergot. There are, however, no fungicide seed treatment products that are labeled for control of ergot, and no level of control can be guaranteed," Fanning said in a published study.

"Certified seed can have no more than 2% maximum ergot sclerotia for the registered class and no more than 3% for the certified seed class. Seed producers typically do not want even that much, and wheat growers usually don't want it either," said Fanning. Resistant commercial varieties of wheat, barley, rye or cultivated grasses are not available. However, some differences among varieties may occur, and those with long flowering periods may be more frequently infected.

The United States Standards for Wheat labels "Ergoty" wheat, containing more than 0.05% of ergot, as "Special Grades and Special Grade Requirements." This means it is not part of the regular wheat grade and is subject to rejection by the buyer. The loss to a farmer and/or a reseller can be costly if a buyer becomes spooked by traces of ergot.


According to the Feb. 11 U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) newsletter, USDA expects 2015-16 Egypt domestic consumption to increase to 19.6 million metric tons, a 3% increase year over year. "To meet the growing demand, Egypt is expected to import 11.5 mmt of wheat in 2015-16, a 4% increase from the prior year. About half of Egypt's wheat imports go directly to production of subsidized flat bread (Baladi bread) to maintain the food security of its 92 million citizens. Markets will continue to adjust as the long-term implications of these policy changes become clear, but in the short-term, buyers and sellers need to weather the inevitable price volatility that always result."

However, to date, Egypt has only imported less than one-half of the wheat they had imported one year ago at this same time. During their third tender on Feb. 12 since the announcement, GASC did purchase 60,000 metric tons of Romanian wheat with only five offers. Another tender, #23, was issued for over the weekend but was cancelled Sunday, Feb. 14, because the four offers were reportedly "unsuitable relative to current market prices," according to the GASC chairman.

Dan Maltby, consultant for Risk Management Group, told DTN that, "At least $6 and higher per metric ton has been built into offers for 'execution protection' as most exporters are not quite sure both Egyptian ministries really are ready to cooperate on the internationally accepted ergot spec."

Besides the ergot issue, Maltby also told DTN that Egypt's problems may go beyond the ergot issue. "They have had trouble with letter of credit (financing) issues recently as well," he added. It would not bode well for them if they are forced to pay more for wheat due to the distrust exporters have in doing business with them.

Mary Kennedy can be reached at

Follow Mary Kennedy on Twitter @MaryCKenn



To comment, please Log In or Join our Community .

Tom Jackson 2/24/2016 | 1:36 AM CST
Dear Mary,

With the advent of colour sorters, ergot CAN now be separated out of wheat at a cost. Western Canada has now installed many colour sorters using optic eyes and jets of air to remove ergot from wheat, rye, or other cereals. These same cleaning machines can upgrade pulse and other grains that colour differentiation can be a separation cleaning/upgrading factor.

"Linnda R. Caporael posited in 1976 that the hysterical symptoms of young women that had spurred the Salem witch trials had been the result of consuming ergot-tainted rye.[20] However, Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, after a review of the historical and medical evidence, later disputed her conclusions.[21] Other authors have likewise cast doubt on ergotism as the cause of the Salem witch trials.[22]" [Wicki]
Bruce Neufeldt 2/18/2016 | 11:41 AM CST
Ergot became a problem for us after we switched to no-till. It is one of the few disadvantages to no-till but we have adapted by changing rotations (no cereals grown on cereal stubble), by increasing our use of fungicides and by using foliar fertilizers instead of applying all our fertilizer at seeding. Timely article, great info>
Martin seeds 2/18/2016 | 9:12 AM CST
Good Job here, Mary. Very well covered!