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Mind the moldy dust during harvest

Angie Peltier and Liz Stahl, Extension educators - crops

Photo: Dave Nicolai
Saprophyte – this is a fancy term for fungi that make their living by colonizing and extracting nutrients from dead tissue. Saprophytes are the reason continuous corn fields aren’t packed with piles of corn residue taller than us – saprophytic fungi help to degrade dead tissue as they complete their own life cycles.

In years where we have rain after the corn crop has matured, but before the crop is harvested, saprophytic fungi are able to colonize and begin degrading corn tissue. The dark-colored dust that has been trailing combines in southern MN this year is most likely spores of saprophytic fungi that are helping to decay corn residue.

Although these fungi aren’t harmful to the corn, the spores can cause respiratory issues for some people and cause a sore throat, irritation of the nose and eyes, and sinus congestion. Some people exposed to saprophytic mold end up feeling like they have the flu, with a hacking cough, chest tightness, headache, high fever and muscle aches. For people with underlying health conditions like emphysema or asthma, this mold can cause significant health concerns.

Follow these best practices

  • Do what you can to avoid breathing in moldy dust, including checking/changing out cabin filters.
  • Get fitted for an N-95 respirator to minimize moldy dust exposure. Be sure and consult your doctor before getting fitted for a respirator, as some folks are not healthy enough (heart and lung-wise) to safely wear a respirator. A disposable 2-strap N95 mask respirator that fits securely to your face is designed to filter out at least 95% of the dust and mold particles in the air.
  • Seek medical attention if you feel sick after dust exposure.

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