A fungus problem with the potential to create widespread damage to corn crops in the Dakotas for perhaps the first time in memory might not be as ominous as first feared.
Initial tests are showing that the corn ear molds that are showing up in North Dakota and South Dakota are not of the type that can make corn inedible for cattle.
The corn mold is caused by different kinds of fungus with various colors, from green to pink to black. Some are relatively harmless, while others can produce toxins that can hurt livestock.
Plant pathologists at North Dakota State University and South Dakota State University say most of the corn samples tested so far have had nontoxic mold.
"I'm optimistic, but of course the results are preliminary because we haven't had a lot of corn harvested yet," said NDSU plant pathologist Marcia McMullen.
As of the latest official estimate Sunday, only 8 percent of corn in North Dakota and 27 percent in South Dakota had been harvested when normally, three-fourths of the crop or more is in the bin by mid-November.
The wet weather that has delayed harvest has led to the mold problem.
"I don't think that it has ever been an issue in South Dakota to this degree," said Bill Chase, who farms near Wolsey in the east central part of the state. "It's another thing we've had to deal with this fall. It seems so far we've reversed November and October (weather)."
McMullen said the cooler weather in October might be why the toxic types of fungus did not show up.
"Most molds that we worry about that produce mycotoxins are favored by temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit," she said.
Chase said much of the corn in his area has types of mold that are blown off in the harvesting process or by equipment used to dry wet crops to storable conditions.
"The overall risk of toxins in the grain might be considerably less than we originally thought," said SDSU plant pathologist Larry Osborne.
Tom Lilja, director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, said the situation appears much the same in his state.
"It just looks really bad," he said of the discolored corn. "But as long as it's rubbing off the kernels it's all right."
The latest crop condition report from the Agriculture Department shows that only 16 percent of the North Dakota corn crop and 7 percent of the South Dakota crop is considered in poor or very poor shape.
Lilja and Chase said that with temperatures now falling below freezing at night they do not expect the fungus problem to worsen. McMullen also said it is unlikely that toxic forms of fungus will show up before the end of harvest, unless there is a period of warm, rainy weather.
"At the superficial level we're seeing right now, I don't believe it will be a problem," she said.