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  • Ear rots are often associated with damage from insects, birds, excessive moisture throughout the reproductive stages or other problems.
  • Some ear rots produce mycotoxins, which are problematic in livestock feed and may cause loads to be rejected by the elevator.
  • Scout prior to harvest, typically R5-R6, to identify potential ear rot problems and prioritize harvest of affected fields.

A number of ear pathogens can cause ear rots, including some of the same pathogens that cause stalk rots.Corn stalk rots and ear rots often go together. Diplodia (Stenocarpella), Fusarium, and Gibberella are the pathogens that most often occur as both stalk and ear rots.Then there are the pathogens that, in corn, occur strictly as ear rots.Two of these are Penicillium and Aspergillus .Finally, there are the pathogens that cause little damage or are uncommon, but may be confused with more significant pathogens.Trichoderma and Cladosporium are included in this group.

For most of the common pathogens, conditions that favor stalk rot development tend to favor ear rots as well.Some ear rots infect corn through the silks and are favored by moist conditions during the early reproductive stages. Wherever hail, insects, birds, or other pests have damaged corn ear tips, ear rot infection is likely. Diplodia (Stenocarpella) ear rot is an exception, since it does not require damage to corn ears in order to infect. Diplodia infection typically moves systemically into the ear through the ear shank.While Diplodia causes stalk rot, it is not as common as stalk rot caused by other pathogens.

Scouting your fields and identifying the type of fungi causing the ear rot is of some importance because some fungi produce mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are poisonous byproducts of certain species of fungi.

Following are some brief comments regarding the common corn ear rots:

  • Fusarium – White to pale pink mold often found on damaged ear tips, but may occur over the entire ear. Fusarium will also cause a series of fine lines radiating from the crown of the kernel, referred to as a “starburst” pattern (Image 1). Kernels displaying the starburst pattern may be present without any additional mold growth.Fusarium produces the mycotoxins – Deoxynivalenol (also known as DON or vomitoxin), Zearalenone, Fumonisin, and Trichothecene.

Image 1.  Fusarium “Starburst” Pattern on Corn Kernels (Source: GROWMARK, Inc.)

Ear Rots_Fusarium Starburst1-1.jpg

  • Gibberella – Pink to pale pink mold, mostly at ear tips damaged by insects or birds, but may occur over the entire ear (Image 2 below)  Frequently colonizes ears damaged by earworms.Infection is favored with cool, wet weather in the three week period after silking. Can produce the mycotoxins – Deoxynivalenol (also known as DON or vomitoxin), and Zearalenone.

Image 2. Gibberella Infection on Corn Ear Associated With Insect Damage (Source: GROWMARK, Inc.)

Ear Rots_Gibberella infection2.jpg

  • Diplodia/Stenocarpella – White mold at base of ear or over entire surface of ear.Fungal growth often causes husks to stick to the ear.May include “mummified” ears. (Diplodia is not known to produce mycotoxins in the U.S.)Diplodia, or Stenocarpella, usually moves into the ear at the base of the ear through the shank, although infection may occur at the ear tip as with other rots.There seems to be a connection with Japanese beetle feeding in some cases.
  • Aspergillus – Olive-green or gray-green mold at ear tips and between rows of kernels.This mold often has a velvety or dusty appearance.Usually occurs during hot, dry weather.Often associated with damage to ear tips from insects or other causes.Aspergillus produces the mycotoxin, aflatoxin. Aspergillus will grow in storage.
  • Penicillium – Blue-green to green mold often associated with damaged ear tips, earworm feeding (Image 3 below). Penicillium also causes “blue eye” symptoms in stored grain. Penicillium produces the mycotoxin – ochratoxin.

Image 3. Penicillium Mold on Insect-Damaged Ear Tip (Source: GROWMARK, Inc.)

Ear Rots_Penicillium Mold3.jpg

  • Trichoderma – Starts as white mold between kernels.Becomes a very dark green to blue-green color and may grow over tops of kernels and underneath the husk.Often associated with frosted or injured corn. Trichoderma does not produce mycotoxins and is generally regarded as a minor ear or kernel rotting pathogen, usually occurring on scattered ears in the field.
  • Cladosporium – When mature, this fungus is very dark colored, black to dark green or dark brown.Some damaged kernels may be completely covered with this mold and appear black.Black streaks may develop in infected kernels.Symptoms frequently occur after an early frost. Cladosporium does not produce mycotoxins.In some geographies, Cladosporium is quite common, but is less so in our area.

Not all ear molds produce mycotoxins. It is also important to realize that even if the molds are present, this doesn’t mean that mycotoxins will be present because the amount and type of toxin produced is dependent on the host, pathogen, the strain of fungus, and weather conditions.The best way to determine if there are mycotoxins is to send a sample to a qualified private lab, USDA lab or university lab, for analysis.

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Ear Rots in Corn and Their Effects