2018 Corn Silage Fungicide Trial Results: A Story of Vomitoxin

Damon L. Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Brian Mueller, M.S., Assistant Researcher, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

John Goeser, Ph.D., Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Dairy Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Animal Nutrition and R&I, Rock River Labs

Figure 1. Gibberella ear rot on corn.

The 2018 corn growing season can be summed up by saying it has been challenging. In Wisconsin, corn diseases have kept producers and agronomists moving to try to manage multiple issues for much of the summer. Early in the season gray leaf spot (GLS) moved in quick, followed by onset of a new disease called tar spot (TS), then northern corn leaf blight (NCLB) reared its head in August. This was then followed by high levels of ear rot in some fields. This is the first season that I have had to rate four diseases in one research trial. While GLS, NCLB, and TS create their own unique management challenges they can also stress the corn plant which results in secondary issues such as loss in stalk integrity or a plant that is left susceptible to other pathogens. I have written a previous article describing some of these issues, and how to deal with them.

To manage some of these foliar issues, increasing interest has been placed on using fungicides, especially in grain corn. Over the last several seasons, interest is growing from dairy producers who are also treating corn silage hybrids with fungicide. Why all the interest in treating silage corn with fungicides? Some of the intent is to improve feed digestibility. Dr. Felipe Cardoso’s animal science laboratory at the University of Illinois has published several peer-reviewed papers describing the physiological changes in the corn plant treated with fungicides, that result in improved feed digestibility. In those studies, yield was often not directly impacted by the fungicide application, but fibrous changes in the corn plant improved feed conversion to milk production in cows fed silage corn treated with fungicide (Haerr et al., J. Dairy Sci., 2015; Kalebich et al., J. Animal Feed Sci., 2017). Our laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is also interested in the effects that fungicides might have on mycotoxin accumulation in silage corn hybrids. We are especially interested in the accumulation of deoxynivalenol (DON or vomitoxin). In corn, DON is primarily produced by a fungus called Fusarium graminearumFusarium graminearum can cause Gibberella ear rot (Fig. 1) and also Gibberella stalk and crown rot of corn (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Severe Gibberella stalk rot (left). Photo Courtesy of Craig Grau.

Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by fungi, that can be toxic to plants and/or animals (including humans). These are termed secondary metabolites as they are not produced by primary metabolism in fungi. We understand some things about secondary metabolism in fungi, but there is much left to learn. Stressors on fungi can be responsible for inducing secondary metabolism, but other environmental and substrate cues might also be important. The inconsistency in induction of secondary metabolism in fungi, might be one reason that we see no linear relationship between ear rot in corn and vomitoxin accumulation. It is not uncommon to find low levels of ear rot, yet find high levels of vomitoxin in finished corn grain.

Animal nutritionists have observed many impacts of mycotoxins on animals, including dairy cattle. These can range from simple reductions in milk production all the way on up to feed refusal, hemorrhaging, and death. For this reason, nutritionists have devised guidelines for dietary limits of some mycotoxins to reduce harm to the animal. Dr. John Goeser has assembled the “Mycotoxin Guidelines and Dietary Limits” fact sheet to help producers better understand the potentially harmful toxin levels in the total diet (DM). You will see in that chart that for DON, the suggested limit is just 0.5 to 1.0 ppm for dairy cattle. The fact sheet also provides a helpful formula to understand the contribution of toxin in a particular component of feed, relative to the total diet.

So how do fungicides affect DON in corn plants at harvest? Let’s look at some data from Wisconsin in 2017 and 2018.

Results of 2017 Silage Corn Fungicide Trials

During the 2017 growing season, we conducted a small-plot research trial at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station located in Arlington, WI. The brown midrib (BMR) corn hybrid ‘P0956AMX’ was chosen for this study. Corn was planted on 11 May and chopped on 13 Sep. Single applications of various fungicide products (Fig. 3) were applied at growth stages V6 (19 Jun), R1 (26 Jul), 5 days post R1 (31 Jul), and 10 days post R1 (4 Aug). Ear rot severity was assessed by visually rating five ears per plot on the day of harvest. Yield was determined by harvesting the center two rows of each plot using a small plot silage chopper with an onboard platform weigh system. Chopped sub-samples were collected from each plot and analyzed for deoxynivalenol (DON) content.

Figure 3. Yield and Forage Quality, 2017


Consistent with other datasets, we found no significant difference in yield across treatments (Fig. 3). Unlike other studies, little difference in digestible fiber (TTNDFd) could be found among all treatments. This could be due to the fact that we started with a high-quality BMR hybrid, thus not readily responding to physiological changes that correspond to increased feed quality when treated with fungicide.

Figure 4. Ear rot and DON concentration at harvest, 2017

All fungicide treatments resulted in a significant reduction in DON content compared to the non-treated control, except Delaro applied at V6 and Quilt Xcel applied at R1 (Fig. 4). Application of the experimental 1 fungicide applied at R1 resulted in the lowest DON content among treatments. Remaining treatments had comparable DON levels to experimental 1 except for Quilt Xcel at R1. These results were consistent with previous data from Canada indicating that there is a narrow window of application-timing (especially when using Proline), when the goal is to reduce DON. The window of application begins at R1 (silking) and ends around 10 days after the start of R1.

Results of 2018 Silage Corn Fungicide Trials

In 2018, we repeated trials that we began in 2017. However, we made several modifications, including adding treatments and adjusting application timings. We also added another hybrid, in addition to repeating trials on PO956AMX. The new hybrid was another BMR, F2F627. We also made plots wider. We increased the width so that we could harvest our center two rows of plot using the small-plot chopper and also destructively sample plants on rows 2 and 5. We cut 5 plants from these rows in a subset of fungicide-treated, or non-treated plots. We then removed the ears (husks attached to ear) from the stalks. We ground the stalk portion and the ear portion and kept these samples separate, so that we had paired-samples for each of these plots. We wanted to know where DON was accumulating in the corn plant. Remember that F. graminearum can cause a stalk rot AND an ear rot. Plots were planted on May 1 in 2018. Growth stage V6 applications were made on June 15, V12 on July 11, R1 on July 18, and R2 on August 1. Plots were chopped on Sep 12. All data acquisition and sample testing was the same as in 2017, with the exception of adding the paired-samples for DON testing. Data from each hybrid were analyzed separately as these hybrids were planted in two separate blocks of the same field.

Figure 5. Disease, yield, and DON data for 2 silage corn hybrids treated with fungicides in 2018 in Arlington WI.

Figure 5 shows mean foliar disease, ear rot, yield, forage quality, and DON levels for both hybrids. Data are sorted by DON level and red highlights of certain products/timings are included to show which were consistent across both hybrids. Foliar disease and ear rot were higher in 2018 than 2017. Each hybrid responded a bit differently to each disease. Similar to 2018 there was little effect of fungicide on yield and forage quality. For PO956AMX, fungicide application also did not significantly affect DON levels. For F2F627 there were some marginally significant differences in DON as a result of fungicide application. Regardless, DON levels were extremely high in this field. This was a natural epidemic, indicating that the environment was very conducive for the fungus in 2018. Some products were consistent across trial in giving some reduction relative to the non-treated. These included Proline applied at R1, Delaro applied at R2, and Miravis Neo applied at V6. With that said, levels of DON were still over 7 ppm, even in better performing treatments. In years where the environment is conducive for F. graminearum, fungicide alone won’t be enough to reduce DON levels to acceptable limits. Incorporation of other techniques such as resistant hybrids will be needed.

What Part of the Plant is DON Accumulating?

Figure 6. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) table and DON levels in stalks and ears of corn plants sampled from two corn hybrids.

Results of our paired-sample analysis were interesting. We chose to sample plots from the non-treated and two fungicide treatments. The details of which fungicide treatments are not important here, as treatment had little effect on DON level in this analysis (Fig. 6). The part of the plant we sampled was significant, as was the interaction of hybrid and plant part. Interestingly, we were able to find high levels of DON in stalks and ears, with PO956AMX actually having twice the level of DON in stalks compared to ears. F2F627 responded differently with higher DON in ears than stalks.

We also dug a little deeper into this relationship, and conducted some correlation analysis with several parameters from these plots. Bissonette et al. (2018) reported that in wheat, DON levels in grain were positively correlated with straw DON levels. They hypothesized that this correlation was due to the fact that DON is water soluble and can be washed from the grain to the straw, in the field, during rain events. We wanted to see if stalk DON was correlated with ear DON in our corn trials, as a similar phenomenon might exist in corn.

Figure 7. Spearman correlation coefficients for several parameters measured in corn plots (2 hybrids) treated with fungicide or not treated in 2018.

Figure 7 shows that while ear DON levels are correlated (either positively or negatively) with some other parameters, ear DON was not significantly (alpha=0.05) correlated with stalk DON. In fact, the relationship (while not significant at alpha=0.05) was actually negatively correlated. This suggested that stalk DON levels and ear DON levels might be originating from independent events in these corn trials. Remember that F. graminearum can cause a stalk and crown rot  AND/OR an ear rot. These different diseases can occur independent of each other. Thus, it is plausible that the stalk DON levels might be due to stalk infection and subsequent rot, that isn’t necessarily related to ear rot in corn.


What does all of this data mean? Well, first it means the Badger Crop Docs have some more work ahead of them. However, we have some interesting data that suggests the following:

1. DON can accumulate in ears AND stalks

-Farmers should test stalks for DON level if planning to feed

2. Some hybrids might be more susceptible to stalk DON accumulation than ear DON accumulation (PO956AMX vs. F2F627)
3. DON accumulation in stalks might be independent from ear DON accumulation

-Think crown and stalk infection vs. ear infection by F. graminearum

-Different than wheat, where water-leaching of DON may be leading to straw DON

4. Fungicide may not always reduce DON, especially in years conducive for F. graminearum or when stalk infection is a primary means of DON accumulation in the corn plant

-It might be hard to get fungicide into stalks to reduce stalk infection; Thus, DON still accumulates in the stalk portion, independent of ear infection control by fungicide applied at R1

5. Best all around fungicide timing when trying to reduce DON still likely R1 (this is dependent on product); this timing has the best chance of reducing DON in the ear, where DON can be high in some hybrids

-Could V6 application timings be reducing stalk infection and subsequent stalk DON accumulation? More work needs to be done.


A Farmer’s Guide to Corn Diseases. 2016. Wise, K., Mueller, D., Sisson, A., Smith, D., Bradley, C., and Robertson, A., eds. APS Press, St. Paul, MN. 161 pp.

Bissonnette, K.m., Kolb, F.L., Ames, K.A., and Bradley, C.A. 2018. Effect of Fusarium head blight management practices on mycotoxin contamination of wheat. Plant Disease 102:1141-1147.

Compendium of Corn Diseases, 4thEdition. Munkvold, G. and White, D., eds. APS Press, St. Paul, MN. 165 pp.

Haerr, K.J., Lopes, N.M., Pereira, M.N., Fellows, G.M., and Cardoso, F.C. 2015. Corn silage from corn treated with foliar fungicide and performance of holstein cows. Journal of Diary Science 98:8962-8972.

Kalebich, C.C., Weatherly, M.E., Robinson, K.N., Fellows, G.M., Murphy, M.R., and Cardoso, F.C. 2017. Foliar fungicide (pyraclostrobin) application effects on plant composition of a silage variety corn. Animal Feed Science and Technology 225:38-53.

Mycotoxins: Risk in Plant, Animal, and Human Systems. 2003. Richard, J.L., Payne, G.A., Desjardins, A.E., Maragos, C., Norred, III, W. et al., eds. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Ames, IA. 199 pp.

Two New Videos Posted on Corn Diseases In Wisconsin

Damon L. Smith, Extension Field Crops Pathologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Gibberella ear rot on corn.

The 2018 corn growing season has been met with numerous disease challenges this season. From typical foliar disease issues like gray leaf spot and northern corn leaf blight, to new diseases like tar spot and bacterial leaf streak, the season has not been easy. As we have started to chop silage, ear rot and mycotoxin issues are also readily apparent.

In an effort to address the new disease, tar spot, we have put together a new video on what we know and don’t know.  You can view that new video on YouTube, by CLICKING HERE. We have also assembled a second video on ear rots and mycotoxin issues in silage corn. That video can be found on YouTube by CLICKING HERE.

We hope you find these videos informative and help you gain ideas to manage these issues in your operation.

What to Expect from Stalk Rot and Mycotoxins in Severely Diseased and Damaged Corn

Damon L. Smith, Extension Field Crops Pathologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Corn is looking pretty rugged in many areas of the Wisconsin corn belt. Areas in southern, southwestern, and south-central Wisconsin have experienced major foliar disease epidemics including the new disease, tar spot. Areas in eastern, east-central, and south-central Wisconsin have also seen heavy flooding and storm damage in corn fields. We have seen fields severely diseased, experiencing stalk rot, lodged, flooded – you name it, it has been a challenging finish to a season that had much promise.

How is tar spot affecting stalk integrity?

Figure 1. Stalks lodged due to reduced stalk integrity.

For corn foliar diseases such as northern corn leaf blight (NCLB) and gray leaf spot (GLS), it is well known that high severity can lead to stalk integrity issues. As foliage is damaged, less photosynthetic capacity is available from the leaves to produce carbohydrates for the plant. To fill an ear of corn, carbohydrates are needed from somewhere. In corn where the foliage is significantly damaged, the stalks become a considerable source to fill out the ear (a sink for nutrients). This leaves the stalk tissues devoid of carbohydrates leading to cell death and subsequent colonization of the stalk by fungal pathogens who are taking the opportunity to feed on a weak stalks. Thus, it isn’t uncommon to see stalk rots like Gibberella stalk rot, Fusarium stalk rot or Anthracnose stalk rot at higher incidence where high foliar disease pressure was observed (Fig.1). Where you find stalk rots, you often find root rots caused by the same pathogens. Root rot and stalk rot often go hand-in-hand.

Other causes for loss in stalk integrity can include large ears (nutrient sinks) that the plant can’t fill out, without using some of the stalk resources. In 2018 we saw many fields where the crop was moving through growth stages quickly and setting what appeared to be good yields. However, weather conditions changed midseason, with wet weather and more cloud cover, combined with nitrogen issues in some fields. This led to large ears that needed to be filled out, with again, limited photosynthetic capacity. The stalks were scavenged for carbohydrate, leaving them, again, with limited integrity.

Figure 2. An entire field lodged due to significant stalk rot

Now throw in some tar spot. Yet, another foliar disease that can limit photosynthetic capacity of the corn plant. We have observed many fields with significant stalk integrity issues. Whether just tar spot, or tar spot combined with GLS, NLCB, and/or stalk scavenging just for carbohydrates – stalks are in bad shape in many areas of Wisconsin. This is resulting in significant lodging issues in many fields, especially those hit with bad storms over the last several weeks (Fig. 2). Harvesting fields with low stalk integrity early will be key to protect yield potential. Conduct a “pinch” test or “push” test to determine which field have lower stalk integrity. Simply pinch stalks or push stalks to a 30 degree angle. Those plant that are soft and easily pinch or don’t pop back up after pushing, have stalk integrity issues. If 30-50% or more of these plants are identified with stalk integrity problems, they should be harvested first, to prevent yield losses from lodging.

What about tar spot, lodged corn, and mycotoxins?

Mycotoxins have not been implicated in the organisms reported to cause tar spot in Latin America. However, that doesn’t mean that other organisms that cause mycotoxins might not be present on harvested grain or silage. As plants dry down they can no longer actively fight fungal infection. We have looked at many brown and drying leaf samples from corn plants with tar spot. We do find many other fungal organisms, including Fusarium-organisms, which can produce mycotoxins. So while tar spot itself may not lead to mycotoxins, opportunistic fungi that colonize secondarily may result in elevated mycotoxin levels.

In addition, corn that has lodged and is in contact with the wet and saturated ground is at risk of being colonized by organisms that produce mycotoxins. Many of the known mycotoxin-producing fungi are found in the soil and on residue on the surface of the soil. If lodged corn is in contact with the ground and there is good moisture, it is possible that the ear and plant are being colonized and mycotoxins are being produced. So while your combine might be able to pick a plant up and harvest the ear, beware that it might be heavily colonized with organisms that produce mycotoxins. If taking corn for silage, lodged plants run the risk of significant hygiene issues in the bunker, including mycotoxins issues.

Where else can mycotoxins come from?

Figure 3. Diplodia ear rot on an ear of corn.

Corn ears don’t have to touch the ground to be infected with ear-rot fungi, they can also be colonized by ear-rot fungi through the silks. Given the kind of crazy year we have had, ear rot might be a significant concern in fields that saw erratic weather this season. Ear rots caused by fungi in the groups Diplodia (Fig. 3), Fusarium, and Gibberella will be the most likely candidates to watch for as you begin harvest.  Fusarium and Giberrella are typically the most common fungi on corn ears in Wisconsin.  This group of fungi not only damage kernels on ears, but can also produce mycotoxins.  The toxins of main concern produced by these organisms are fumonisins and vomitoxin and can threaten livestock that are fed contaminated grain.  Thus grain buyers actively test for mycotoxins in corn grain, and feed managers monitor silage for mycotoxin levels to be sure they are not above certain action levels established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA has established maximum allowable levels of fumonisins in corn and corn products for human consumption ranging from 2-4 parts per million (ppm).  For animal feed, maximum allowable fumonisin levels range from 5 ppm for horses to 100 ppm for poultry. Vomitoxin limits are 5 ppm for cattle and chickens and 1 ppm for human consumption.

For more information about ear rots and to download a helpful fact sheet produced by a consortium of U.S. corn pathologists, CLICK HERE.

How do I reduce mycotoxin risks at harvest?

Before harvest, farmers should check their fields to see if moldy corn is present. Sample at least 10-20 ears in five locations of your field. Pull the husks back on those ears and observe how much visible mold is present. If 30% or more of the ears show signs of Gibberella or Fusarium ear rot then testing of harvested grain is definitely advised. If several ears show 50-100% coverage of mold testing should also be done. Observe grain during harvest and occasionally inspect ears as you go. This will also help you determine if mycotoxin testing is needed.

If substantial portions of fields appear to be contaminated with mold, it does not mean that mycotoxins are present and vice versa. For example, Diplodia ear rot does not produce mycotoxins. However, if you are unsure, then appropriate grain samples should be collected and tested by a reputable lab.  Work with your corn agronomist or local UW Extension agent to ensure proper samples are collected and to identify a reputable lab.

For more information on mycotoxins and to download a fact sheet, CLICK HERE.

Helpful information on grain sampling and testing for mycotoxins can be found by CLICKING HERE.

For a list of laboratories that can test corn grain for mycotoxins, consult Table 2-16 in UW Extension publication A3646 – Pest Management in Wisconsin Field Crops.

How should I store corn from fields with ear rots and mold?

If you observe mold in certain areas of the field during harvest, consider harvesting and storing that corn separately, as it can contaminate loads; the fungi causing the moldy appearance can grow on good corn during storage.  Harvest corn in a timely manner, as letting corn stand late into fall promotes Fusarium and Gibberella ear rots.  Avoid kernel damage during harvest, as cracks in kernels can promote fungal growth.  Also, dry corn properly as grain moisture plays a large roll in whether corn ear rot fungi continue to grow and produce mycotoxins.  For short term storage over the winter, drying grain to 15% moisture and keeping grain cool (less than 55F) will slow fungal growth.  For longer term storage and storage in warmer months, grain should be dried to 13% moisture or less. Fast, high-heat drying is preferred over low-heat drying. Some fungi can continue to grow during slow, low-heat drying. Also, keep storage facilities clean.  Finally, mycotoxins are extremely stable compounds: freezing, drying, heating, etc. do not degrade mycotoxins that have already accumulated in grain. While drying helps to stop fungal growth, any mycotoxins that have already accumulated prior to drying will remain in that grain. The addition of acids and reducing pH can reduce fungal growth but will not affect mycotoxins that have already accumulated in harvested grain.

For more information on properly storing grain and to download a fact sheet on the subject, CLICK HERE.


Munkvold, G.P. and White, D.G. Compendium of Corn Diseases, 4th Edition. APS Press.

In addition, This article is a compilation of the following previously written resources:

Smith, D.L. 2016. Wisconsin Late-Season Corn Disease Update. /2016/09/07/wisconsin-late-season-corn-disease-update/.

Smith, D.L. and Mitchell, P. D. 2016. Wet Wisconsin: Moldy Corn and Crop Insurance. http://ipcm.wisc.edu/blog/2016/09/wet-wisconsin-moldy-corn-and-crop-insurance/.