Cattle ergot poisoning concerns raised

Marked by muscle tremors, uncoordinated movements and a staggering walk, ergot poisoning in cattle and other ruminants is now a cause for concern among farmers in the southern U.S. after weather conditions have created a growing environment known to produce ergot fungus (Claviceps paspali).

In a recent article from Cattle Network, ergot fungus is currently being seen in Arkansas’s dallisgrass, a perennial grass that is cultivated for pasture in many places. The growing fungus replaces the seed and poisons cattle that graze on the grass when it is at full seedhead. This ergot fungus can also be found in several other plant species including wheat, barley, oats, brome grass, and wheatgrass.

“Cattle have the habit of selectively grazing seedheads, which leads to a very high dosage of ergot alkaloids,” said John Jennings, professor-forage of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “Even on farms where cattle are previously exposed to dallisgrass, poisoning can occur when animals are hungry and are turned into a field full of seedheads.”

Caused by cool, damp spring conditions followed by a rainy, warm summer, ergot bodies appear as dark brown to black growths and contain several toxic chemicals produced by the fungus, called ergot alkaloids. An article from Ag Web suggests it may be useful to have feedstuffs analyzed for ergot alkaloids before being consumed by livestock, and thus helping to reduce the occurrence of poisoning.

However, when it comes to the crude levels of ergot bodies in feed, it is difficult to establish a safe level due to variation in toxin levels and susceptibility in animals.  Ag Web’s article states that total dietary levels of 100-200 parts per billion of ergot alkaloids can be associated with adverse effects on livestock performance, but this is dependent on many animal and environmental factors.

While there is no cure for ergot poisoning, Cattle Network’s article suggests removing cows from infected pastures when symptoms are first noticed and providing care to manage pain, stress, and secondary infection.  Clipping seedheads to prevent animals from grazing on them can also help prevent the problem from occurring.

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