Investigating trends in ergot in Canadian cereal crops

Hard, dark purple ergot bodies or sclerotia

Hard, dark purple ergot bodies or sclerotia

In Canada, ergot is a grain grading factor for many cereal crops including rye, barley, oats, bread wheat, durum wheat, and canary seed. These crops are important Canadian exports and are important food sources for humans and animals, giving the grain industry a strong interest in understanding the frequency and severity of ergot in Canadian crops. In the most robust study of ergot in Canadian grain to date, we investigated trends in ergot incidence, severity, and ergot alkaloid presence over the past 25 years so we could better understand how ergot has changed over time.

Ergot is a fungal plant disease found in cereal crops and grasses across North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. When a plant is infected with ergot, kernels are replaced by ergot bodies or sclerotia. These ergot bodies are black or dark purple and hard. When ergot bodies are present during milling, the resulting flour is discoloured with dark specks. Ergot bodies also contain chemicals that are toxic to both humans and animals, even in small amounts.

We looked at data on producer samples from the Harvest Sample Program and export cargo samples from the Cargo Monitoring Program. Data from more than 230,000 producer grain samples taken from 1995 to 2020 showed that rye has the greatest occurrence of ergot, followed by wheat, barley, and oat.

Overall, we found that while ergot has been found in annual harvest samples more frequently over time, the concentration of ergot bodies in samples has not increased. Data on ergot alkaloids from the Cargo Monitoring Program also showed that the Canadian bulk grain-handling system can manage the presence of ergot.


Our findings show that while the number of samples containing ergot has increased, the amount of ergot within grain samples has not increased and is well managed by the Canadian grain handling chain.

Dr. Sean Walkowiak
Program Manager, Microbiology and Grain Genomics
Grain Research Laboratory

Photograph of Dr. Sean Walkowiak

Full research article

Sean Walkowiak, Dale Taylor, Bin Xiao Fu, Dainna Drul, Kerri Pleskach & Sheryl A. Tittlemier (2022) Ergot in Canadian cereals – relevance, occurrence, and current status, Canadian Journal of Plant Pathology, 44:6, 793-805, DOI: 10.1080/07060661.2022.2077451

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