2019 Ontario Grain Corn Ear Mould and Deoxynivalenol (DON) Mycotoxin Survey


Co-authored with Albert Tenuta, Field  Crop Pathologist, OMAFRA

OMAFRA field crop specialists in collaboration with Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) and members of the Ontario Agri-Business Association (OABA) have completed the annual Provincial corn ear mould and mycotoxin survey. Corn ear moulds such as Gibberella and their corresponding mycotoxins occur every year in Ontario. These mycotoxins, particularly deoxynivalenol (DON, or also referred to as vomitoxin) are produced primarily by Gibberella/Fusarium ear moulds can be disruptive when fed to livestock, especially hogs. The 2019 survey found 96% of samples tested low (<2.00 parts per million (ppm)) for DON which is considerably lower than 2018.  


From October 3 to 9, 2019, a total of 222 ear corn samples were collected from across the province. Five consecutive ears were collected from four random locations throughout a field and placed into high temperature driers as soon as possible after collection. Pictures were taken to document moulds (Fig. 1) and insect and bird feeding damage. Dry ears were shelled and the entire shelled sample was coarse ground and mixed for sub-sampling consistency. Sub samples were collected and finely ground for DON analysis by quantitative ELISA analysis at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus mycotoxin lab.         

Figure 1. Corn ear moulds which can be observed in Ontario.


Results for the 2019 survey are presented in Table 1. Overall, visual mould symptoms and DON concentrations were much lower than 2018, and in the lower range of long-term survey results (Table 2). Most samples exhibited no visual ear mould symptoms. In samples where ear moulds were observed, it was most often associated with insect or bird feeding damage opening husks and damaging kernels.  Other mouldy samples with no apparent insect/bird ear damage were observed where weather and hybrid susceptibility were likely factors. 

Table 1. Deoxynivalenol (DON) results from the 2019 Ontario grain corn ear mould and DON survey.

Table 2. Deoxynivalenol (DON) results from the past nine Ontario grain corn ear mould and DON survey.

While 95% of 2019 samples tested below 2 ppm, it is important to remember that growers should remain vigilant and be aware of management options in those fields with higher ear mould and DON concentrations. Ear moulds and mycotoxins occur every year in Ontario and fields need to be assessed individually. Distribution of samples and their corresponding DON levels are presented in Figure 2. 

Figure 2. Corn ear mould and deoxynivalenol (DON) survey sampling locations and results in 2019.

A Late Growing Season

Growing conditions may have been less conducive for ear moulds in 2019, but the corn crop is also less mature than it normally would be, which may partially explain low levels. The 2019 DON survey was delayed given that planting and crop development were delayed due to wet spring conditions, but despite this, samples still mostly ranged from half milkline to not quite black layer, while in most years samples would have largely been black layered. High grain moistures later in the growing season and slow dry down can be factors for ear mould development if ear moulds are established and environmental conditions are suitable, although cooler temperatures of November and December should also slow further mould development. For comparison, in the high-risk year of 2018 visual mould symptoms were already very apparent by the latter half-milk stage.   

Feeding Damage:

Ear feeding by pests, particularly western bean cutworm (WBC), or birds can open husks and damage kernels and present an opportunity for greater mould infection. Feeding damage can be a significant contributor towards elevated DON levels in survey samples. While generally low pest pressure overall,  feeding from WBC and corn earworm (CEW) was present in some samples but at levels typically observed in most DON surveys. Where pest feeding was present, ear damage did appear to elevate the risk for ear mould and DON. This was markedly different than 2018 where pest feeding was very minimal, and most ear moulds appeared to be silk-initiated infections. Late season corn earworm damage in some fields, particularly Southwestern and Eastern, Ontario could have contributed to increased ear mould incidence and DON production. Particularly in later planted fields that were most attractive to CEW.



How to Sample Corn Loads:

The importance of collecting a representative sample cannot be emphasized enough, since 90% of the variability associated with mycotoxin testing comes from incorrect sample collection. While taking a sample from the top of a storage bin, truck or combine may be easy and convenient, mycotoxins are rarely distributed evenly in a load of corn.

If the sample is to come from a bin, truck, V-box, or other stationary load of corn, a sample probe is recommended. Although 10 probe samples are recommended for best results, 5 probe samples is the minimum necessary for accurate results. Mix the grouped sample. Because individual kernels can be highly variable and are still relatively coarse in size for subsampling, the whole sample should ideally be ground (at least coarsely) to improve mixing and ability to collect a representative sub sample for analysis. If you are dealing with a moving stream of grain, use a diverter or randomly collect cupfuls of grain. Regardless of how the sample is taken, it must be processed quickly. Ship or deliver the fresh sample promptly. The longer the sample sits around the greater potential for inaccurate results.


Going Forward:

This survey does not fully capture all regions of the province, and results can vary locally from field to field depending on local weather, hybrid, planting date, insect feeding, rotation, residue levels, fungicide practices and moisture. These survey results may not fully capture what is occurring in your fields, and therefore monitoring is always recommended. Timely harvest is important. Leaving diseased grain in the field allows the ear rot fungi to keep growing, which will increase the risk of mouldy grain and mycotoxin contamination since most ear rot fungi continue to grow (and potentially produce mycotoxins) until the grain has less than 15 percent moisture. In severely infected fields or those under higher risk, growers should consider harvesting grain at higher moisture and then dry it to less than 15 percent to minimize further mycotoxin accumulation. 

If a field contains a significant level of ear mould (10% or more ears with mould symptoms), collect a representative sample prior to harvest and have it tested for mycotoxins before storing the grain or feeding it to livestock. If necessary segregate the harvested grain from your other corn.  A lab test is often the only reliable way to definitively determine mycotoxin presence and levels. 

When ear rots are present, the following harvest, storage and feeding precautions are advisable (Adapted from OMAFRA Pub 811, Agronomy Guide for Field Crops):

• Harvest and dry as quickly as possible, especially susceptible hybrids. Mould and mycotoxin development ceases when grain moistures are below 15%.

• If insect or bird damage is evident, harvest outside damaged rows separately. Keep and handle the grain from these rows separately.

• Adjust harvest equipment to minimize damage to corn, and to remove smaller end kernels or those that have been damaged from mould or insect feeding. Clean corn thoroughly to remove pieces of cob, small kernels and red dog which may be infected.

• Clean bins before storing new grain and cool the grain after drying. If possible, segregate corn based on vomitoxin content to help match end use.

• Check stored grain often for temperature, wet spots, insects and mould growth. For grain with elevated mould content, consider marketing as soon as possible. Avoid long term storage where possible.

• Exercise caution when handling or feeding mouldy corn to livestock, especially to hog breeding herds and weanling pigs. Pink or reddish moulds are particularly harmful. Test suspect samples for toxins. Work with a nutritionist to manage vomitoxin levels in feed.

Preventing ear rots and mould can be difficult since weather conditions are critical to disease development. A few things to consider for 2020. Hybrid selection is important but remember although some tolerant hybrids are available, none have complete resistance. Growers are encouraged to discuss with their local seed supplier, what ear mould tolerant hybrids are best suited for their operation. New for 2019, the Ontario Corn Committee has initiated inoculated DON trials for evaluating differences in DON susceptibility across Ontario hybrids. This information is expected to be released this fall.  Crop rotation may help reduce the incidence of ear rots, while several foliar fungicides aimed at suppressing ear rots have also been registered. Cultural practices such as tillage have been shown to have limited success in preventing ear and kernel rots.

Agricorp customers with mould issues are encouraged to immediately contact Agricorp at 1-888-247-4999 and report damage.


Additional Resources:

For additional information, see the Crop Protection Network’s “Corn Management Disease Series – Ear Rots” publications at CropProtectionNetwork.org

Crop Protection Network Publications:

CPN-2001 – Corn – Ear-Rots

CPN-2002 – Corn – Mycotoxin FAQs

CPN-2003 – Corn – Grain Sampling and Mycotoxin Testing

CPN-2004 – Corn – Storing Mycotoxin-Affected Grain



We would like to thank the Grain Farmers of Ontario and University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus mycotoxin lab for their support of this survey as well as the Ontario Agri Business Association (OABA) and its members for their interest, support and participation. Sincere thanks to all of those who helped assist in the co-ordination and collection of samples: Agris Co-operative, Belmont Farm Supply, Campbellford Farm Supply, Clark Agri Service, FS Partners, Hoegy’s Farm Supply, Holmes Agro, Lakeside Grain & Feed, Lockie Farms Grain Elevator, MacEwen Agricentre, Maizex Seeds, Millstone Crop Services, Oxford Agropro, Parrish and Heimbecker, Sprucedale Agromart, St. Lawrence Grain & Farm Supply, P.T. Sullivan Agro, TCO Agromart, Thompsons, Wellburn Agromart as well as the many corn producers and OMAFRA field crop staff who were involved. This co-operation is critical for the DON survey to attempt to sample from as much of the corn growing areas of the province as possible in a relatively short time window.

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