Farmers Warned to Watch for Carcinogen as Drought Continues

Aflatoxin, a toxic carcinogen that can impair livestock health, is flourishing as corn crops wither in the heat.

Photo Credit: vesilvio/


Continuing heat and drought are withering corn crops across the Midwest, creating prime conditions for a fungus that produces aflatoxin, a toxic carcinogen that causes health problems in livestock that eat the contaminated feed, according to Purdue University researchers.

"Aspergillus ear rot is out there, but it varies greatly from field to field," said Kiersten Wise, a Purdue University Extension plant pathologist. "There is no field without some potential for the disease."The fungus, Aspergillus ear rot, infects corn ears through silks or wounds. Fields most at risk, researchers said, were planted in late March or early April.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates how much aflatoxin is allowed in livestock feed and corn for human consumption. Corn destined for humans and dairy cattle has the tightest limit, at 20 parts per billion. Corn destined intended to finish beef cattle can contain the fungus at concentrations up to 300 parts per billion.

Another blow

The news comes as yet another blow for Corn Belt farmers struggling with a summer of extremes. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows 64 percent of the continental United States is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought, a new record.

Soybean production was forecast at 2.6 billion bushels, down 14 percent from last year. Prices jumped in the commodity markets for both crops. Earlier this week the USDA chopped projections for corn and soybean yields. New estimates suggest the nation's corn crop could top out at 10.7 billion bushels, down 13 percent from 2011 and the lowest yield since 2006.

With no sign that prices will fade any time soon, Purdue University Extension agricultural economist Chris Hurt warned that the livestock industry is in for a tough patch. "Cash flows are probably going to be negative for the most part," he said in a statement.

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