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Aflatoxin worries piling up

Jeff Caldwell 08/27/2012 @ 9:59am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

There are a lot of expectations for a quick corn harvest this fall. That's reasonable, some farmers say, given the crop's going to be short and dry. But, on the contrary so far, some early loads to the elevator show it may not be as quick and relatively painless as many had hoped.

Blame aflatoxin. The fungal disease loves hot, dry years like this one, and now that more combines are starting to roll, there are signs that harvest won't be as brief as once thought. Farmers say they're already seeing more testing for the disease -- which can be potentially fatal for livestock when consuming infected corn -- and in addition to making it possible for some loads to be turned away by the elevator, it's adding time to the process of taking grain to town.

"Every single load is getting a DNA test to check for aflatoxin. Takes about 10 minutes," says Agriculture.com Marketing Talk senior contributor Hobbyfarmer. "They are practicing on the old corn to get a hang of the procedure. Good thing there is a very short crop here. Ten-plus-minute wait after leaving the scale. Twenty parts per billion is the threshold for rejection."

That 20-ppb threshold has always been a bone of contention; that can amount to a mere handful of kernels in some truckloads, making testing a hit-or-miss affair, some farmers say. But, that's the rule, and it makes it important, if you think you have a field that's got mycotoxins present, to take the right steps, says Marketing Talk veteran contributor WCMO.

"If you think you have aflatoxin, have been told you have aflatoxin or just want your corn 'officially' checked, then stop what you are doing and call your insurance agent pronto," he says. "An insurance adjuster can sample your unharvested field, or obtain samples while you are harvesting, or give you additional instructions. You are not allowed to pull your own samples, and insurance probably cannot accept aflatoxin determinations from your local elevator. If you harvest the field and put it in the bin, the adjuster cannot pull samples for aflatoxin from the bin."

There are ways to make an educated determination whether your fields need to be tested before you run the combine, though. For one, scout for Aspergillus ear rot first, as that disease is a common precursor to aflatoxin. Start with your fields that have historically been susceptible to ear-feeding bugs like the corn earworm, says University of Nebraska Extension plant pathologist Tamra Jackson-Ziems. Open husks to "view a large number of ears," then look for "the presence of dusty yellow-green to olive-green spores along the edges of kernels when scouting, she says. And, start with fields where you suspect your crop's incurred the most drought damage.

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