Cattle deaths linked to toxin-producing fungi

A fungus that produces a lethal toxin (and may have ties to the Salem witch trials), has cropped up in pastures in the U.S. corn belt.

Ergot, which can be fatal to humans and animals, already has led to cattle deaths in Missouri. The fungus affects many types of crops, including barley, oats and rye, along with grasses, such as timothy and fescue. Typically, ergot appears in “small pockets” around the state, but this year ergot seems be more widespread, according to the University of Missouri Extension.

Experts have attributed the spread to this summer’s weather, which has created conditions in the state for ergot to thrive – that is, cool and wet weather followed by high temperatures and humidity. Often, this wouldn’t be a concern as producers typically cut crops and grasses before they come to a head, but continued wet weather has prevented cutting, The Progressive Farmer notes.

“With that amount of moisture in the ground and in the plants, once it gets hot the state turns into an incubator,” said Craig Roberts, a UM Extension forage specialist.

In a statement, the Extension urges producers to remove livestock from infected fields. Cattle that already have died this year from ergot poisoning demonstrated similar symptoms to heat stress. Symptoms include malaise, decreased milk production, rapid breathing, and loss of tail and ear switches.

Ergot bodies look similar to rodent droppings in the head of grains and grasses. The fungus has been a problem for centuries, having been linked to epidemics in the Middle Ages and to the Salem witch trials (ergot poisoning in humans can cause psychosis and hallucinations).

Toxins produced by fungi that grow on grains can cause severe production losses, as well as illness in humans and animals. Last summer, drought conditions across the U.S. led to an outbreak of aflatoxin, which is produced by the molds Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. So far this year, there have been numerous reports of another toxin, deoxynivalenol (DON) in wheat across the Midwest and Southern U.S.

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