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Corn Smut Appears Unexpectedly This Year

TAGS: USDA
Corn Smut Appears Unexpectedly This Year
Experts say stress at wrong time likely triggered the fungus.

Someone evaluating a heat-stressed, un-harvested corn field stressed found several examples of smut. He pulled them out and was telling a friend that according to legend, ancient Aztecs ate corn smut. In fact, he insists that's why they grew maize.

"Maybe that's why they died and aren't around anymore," the friend quipped.

The more serious side of corn smut is that it showed up in several fields that were stressed this year. The fungus produces a large growth, typically where the ear should be. Instead of an ear to harvest, you get this misshapen glob of fungal growth, which can be the size of a baseball, with colors varying through various shades of white and gray.

SMUTTY EARS: Corn smut usually forms where ears should be, but it can also form at other places on the corn plant. (Purdue University Photo)

The Purdue University Corn & Soybean Field Guide describes the growths form the fungus as galls. Inside are black spores. Typically, the infection occurs when plants are small, entering through a wound in the plant. It and crazy top are sometimes associated with ponding over young corn in the spring. That wasn't the case this year.

The spores survive in crop debris and in the soil. Besides being able to enter wounds when plants are young, the spores can also enter through silks at pollination time. That's apparently what happened in the more highly-stressed fields this year.

Normally, smut is not considered to be a big economic problem. The damage this year, in many cases, replaced an ear. However, if smut wasn't there, there's no guarantee that the plant would have produced an ear with many kernels anyway.

Most hybrids have reasonably good resistance to smut. If for some reason you have issues with it this year or in past years, you might want to check with your seedsman to make sure hybrids you select have very good resistance to it.

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