Late Season Corn Foliar Disease Update and Hail-Damaged Corn

Damon L. Smith, Extension Field Crops Pathologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Scouting by my team and phone calls from extension personnel, consultants, and farmers have made it evident that there are several foliar diseases of corn showing up  in this first part of August. Gray leaf spot (GLS), northern corn leaf blight (NCLB), and tar spot have all been found in various locations over the last week or so. It is becoming very late in the season to try to control GLS or NCLB. Current data on tar spot indicate it likely doesn’t need to be controlled. Thus, there is likely not much to do at this point, but to document which fields have which diseases. This can help in fall scouting to make harvest decisions, as fields with higher levels of leaf disease may not have experienced any yield loss, but might have stalk integrity issues, which could lead to lodging. Determining which fields might be more prone to lodging can help establish harvest order to minimize any losses due to severely lodged plants. Below is more information about each foliar disease.

Gray leaf spot (GLS)

Figure 1. Gray leaf spot on a corn hybrid. Photo Courtesy of Craig Grau, University of Wisconsin-Madison








Gray leaf spot is cause by a fungus named Cercospora zeae-maydis. During times of very warm temperature and high humidity (greater than 90%), GLS can increase rapidly on susceptible hybrids. In fields with large amounts of corn residue (e.g. corn-on-corn rotation, minimal tillage, etc.) GLS may be more prominent due to higher levels of inoculum. Symptoms start as small narrow, blocky lesions that might be tan in the center and have a darker margin (Fig. 1). Lesion can increase in size and number and will typically move from lower leaves to upper leaves. Yield loss is most prominent when lesions reach the ear leaves either 2 weeks before tasseling or two weeks after tasseling. Currently, in Wisconsin, we have seen few fields where lesions have reached the ear leaves prior to brown silk. However, in a small number of fields planted to a susceptible hybrid, there has been rapid increase to the ear leaves prior to tassel. In those fields a fungicide application may result in adequate yield protection to cover the cost of fungicide application. See my previous article on how to make the decision to spray fungicide on corn.

Northern Corn Leaf Blight (NCLB)

Figure 2. Northern corn leaf blight on corn.

Northern corn leaf blight is caused by the fungus Setosphaeria turcica. The fungus is most active when wet weather coincides with temperatures between 65 F and 80 F. During these conditions, the fungus will readily make microscopic spores (called conidia) inside the symptomatic areas of leaves and those spores will get splashed onto more leaves. Therefore, the disease typically moves from the lower canopy, up the corn plant as the season progresses. When temperatures get above 80 F and it is dry, growth and spread of the fungus slows dramatically. This is why little NCLB was observed in July, but is showing up now. It is all about the temperature at which the fungus likes to grow. Lesions initiate as cigar-shaped lesions on lower leaves. When conditions are conducive lesions can expand and increase, moving rapidly up the plant (Fig. 2). Occasionally a gray-to-black fuzzy growth is evident in the center of lesions. This growth is sporulation of the fungus. Like GLS, yield loss is greatest when lesions reach the ear leaf either two weeks before or two weeks after tasseling. Again, consult my previous article on how to make the decision to spray fungicide on corn.

Tar Spot

Tar spot is a relatively new disease in the U.S. and Wisconsin. It is caused by a fungus called Phyllachora maydis. Tar spot causes small tar-like spots on the surface of corn leaves. For great information about tar spot and what it looks like, consult this Purdue Extension fact sheet. Tar spot was first found in the U.S. in 2015. In 2016 and 2017, tar spot was identified in Green, Iowa, Grant, and Lafayette counties in Wisconsin. In 2018 confirmations have been made in these same general areas. In Latin America Phyllachora maydis can be found in a complex with another fungus called Monographella maydis. In areas where the complex occurs significant yield loss has been described. However, in the U.S. Monographella maydis has not been found in complex with Phyllachora maydis. Furthermore, Phyllachora maydis is not known to cause yield loss on corn in the U.S. While it can be a striking disease, fungicide applications are not recommended for tar spot in the U.S. Much more work is needed to characterize this pathogen and understand the disease. We are working with Dr. Nathan Kleczewski at the University of Illinois to improve our understanding of this pathogen in the U.S. If you would like to confirm tar spot on corn, or provide samples for research purposes, you can send samples to the University of Wisconsin Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic.

What about Spraying Fungicide After Hail Damage?

The best study on this subject was conducted by my colleagues at Iowa State University a couple years back. They found that for the most part application of fungicide after hail does not result in any benefits. Especially after the R2 growth stage. We also had an opportunity to look at a natural hail event in 2014 at Arlington. This happened around VT.  We were also unable to find a significant difference in treating with  a fungicide versus not treating after late season hail-damage. In addition, it isn’t likely that fungal infections will increase after hail. In fact in the Iowa State University study, they found a negative correlation between hail damage and fungal disease. Hail CAN increase Goss’s wilt risk. However, Goss’s wilt is caused by a bacterium. Thus, fungicide application does not work for this disease. For more information on Goss’s Wilt and how to manage it click here. In summary, given the current market prices and the fact that corn is generally through the silking period, fungicide application on hail-damaged corn is not needed.