Source: University of Missouri Extension

By Duane Dailey, University of Missouri Extension Writer

Fungus-infected wheat not bought by grain elevators at harvest may have use as seed for cover crop to protect soil over winter.

Veterinary toxicologists at the University of Missouri see the possibilities in planting the rejected crop.

On animal health, Tim Evans, DVM toxicologist, says he sees nothing in the life cycle of the small-grain fungus that would prevent using the seed for cover crop. However, germination of the seed could be reduced.

Bill Wiebold, University of Missouri agronomist, agrees. 

“Like many problems this year, we’ve never been here before. We don’t have research to answer questions raised by record-setting wet weather,” he says.

Questions on using “vomitoxin wheat” came from farmers, says University of Missouri Extension specialists on the weekly agronomy teleconference. 

Wet weather during flowering and seed set of small grains caused multiple types of fungus to create mycotoxins in the wheat crop.

“Vomitoxin gets attention because FDA set limits on use of infected seed in livestock feed,” Evans says, who adds that the name comes from swine vomiting after eating infected grain. “More likely, producers will see feed refusal by their hogs.”

The FDA vomitoxin limit for swine ration is one part per million (ppm). For feed yard cattle, the limit is 10 ppm. For dairy cows it is 5 ppm. Evans tells clients to cut the feeding rate in half. 

“That allows for sampling errors,” he explains.

Of serious concern is the toxin zearalenone produced by the same fungus. It impacts breeding females, acting as an estrogen, Evans says. Female hogs show swollen vulvas and mammary glands. Reproductive tract development can be slowed. The estrogen-like toxin might affect reproductive tracts of developing heifers and cows.

The toxin develops under the same conditions as vomitoxin.

Not only the seed but straw can contain these toxins.

“Care must be used in selecting bedding straw,” Evans says.

Local elevators use truck-side tests for vomitoxin, says George Rottinghaus, analytical chemist at the University of Missouri Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory.

The lab provides farmers more precise readings of mycotoxins in parts per million. The quick test at the elevator shows if there is enough toxin to reject or discount a load of wheat.

This summer Evans receives at least a couple of calls a day about vomitoxin in wheat, he says. Usually he receives none.

The fungus also infects rye, barley and oats. These mycotoxins occur in corn but it’s too early to see them.

Also unknown is the germination level of infected wheat seed, Wiebold says. Seed test labs can check germination, or farmers can do their own “flowerpot test” to determine percent germination, or “rag-doll tests” can be run by putting seeds in a wet cloth rolled up and kept at temperature of fields at planting.

For farmers, planting the bad seed solves two problems. It makes use of worthless seed and it provides soil cover to prevent erosion.

With limitations on land that earns prevented-planting payments, the winter forage can be grazed by livestock, making winter feed. Check with NRCS and FSA on those limits on cover crop grazing.

Wheat, rye and oats are popular winter cover crops, says Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage agronomist. They kill easily before planting spring crops, unlike some covers.