The Q&A Archives: Corn Smut And Wheat Smut

Question: We have been battling corn smut for the past three years. We have moved our garden 3 times. We are also wheat and barley farmers. I am aware of wheat smut and am curious if corn smut is contagious to wheat? Our garden is right next to our field.

Answer: Smut is a disease caused by fungi in the family Basidiomycetes. Smut fungi attack the ovaries of grains and grasses, so the wheat smut and corn smut are similar, but not necessarily interchangeable. (Ustilago causes corn smut; Tilletia causes wheat smut.)

Here's the good news about corn smut: it's a fungus that's highly regarded by some individuals and is actually served in some restaurants. Now, here's the bad news: corn smut is a fungus that can survive in the soil 5-7 years. While it is not within the seed, the fungus can survive on the seedcoat. The infection occurs most often when soil temperatures are between 68F and 86F degrees. Here's what you can do: If your soil is infected, don't plant corn, or at least rotate your crop so it's not in soil that's held infected corn for at least 4 years. Plant resistant cultivars like 'Goldie' and 'Blitz'. Plant the seed only 1-inch deep to promote rapid germination. Keep the seedbed moist for the first 4 weeks after planting. If you have the time and patience, pre-sprout your corn seed by placing them between damp papertowels and sealing in a plastic bag. Then carefully plant the spouts. Or, start your seeds in either one-quart or one-half gallon paper milk cartons. When the plants are 8-10 inches tall, cut away the bottom of the container and cut down the length of two sides of the container. Then dig a hole exactly the same size and depth as the container, and carefully transplant your seedlings. These extra steps will help the corn grow to maturity without developing smut.

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