A livestock tragedy in Texas earlier this month spawned an Internet butchering of the facts, leading to further misperceptions about agriculture and the technology used to produce food.

Fifteen steers died on a small ranch east of Austin, Tex., from prussic acid poisoning after grazing a field of hybrid Bermuda grass known as Tifton 85. The story gained widespread attention after a local CBS News affiliate reported the grass that killed the steers was a genetically modified (GM) variety, which was incorrect, and the CBS affiliate later published a correction. The original story also said the steers had died from cyanide poisoning, which is prussic acid poisoning. Naturally, using phrases such as “GM” and “cattle deaths” and “cyanide” in a story can create a buzz among the anti-agriculture folks, especially when they have little knowledge of prussic acid poisoning.

The original story claiming the GM tie to the “mysterious” cattle deaths was forwarded to Drovers/CattleNetwork urging us to post it to our web site, which we did not. However, the subsequent Internet chatter with various forms of misinformation underscores our need to provide an update.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service has been flooded with media calls, and they issued a news release late Tuesday afternoon that was posted to Drovers/CattleNetwork.

“There’s a lot of information and misinformation that continues to circulate about this recent isolated case of cattle dying after consuming a Bermuda grass hybrid known as Tifton 85,” said Dr. Ron Gill, AgriLife Extension livestock specialist. “It should be known that there is not a widespread problem or concern related to this forage or its use for grazing livestock or the production of hay for livestock consumption.”

Texas AgriLife Extension state forage specialist Dr. Larry Redmon said, “Tifton 85 is a hybrid Bermuda grass released from the forage breeding program at the USDA-ARS station at Tifton, Georgia, in 1992 by Dr. Glenn Burton. Dr. Burton is the plant breeder who released ‘Coastal’ Bermuda grass in 1943.” To date, there have been millions of acres of Tifton 85 Bermuda grass planted across the southeastern U.S., Redmon said. Since its release in 1992, Tifton 85 has become the most commonly planted Bermuda grass in Texas.

In short, the scientists that have investigated the case know the cattle died of prussic acid poisoning, and they know that Tifton 85 is not a GM grass. Also, this is the first case of prussic acid poisoning from Tifton 85 that the researchers have uncovered.

Tifton 85, along with many forage species, have the potential to produce prussic acid. Typically, drought-stressed pastures increase those risks. The Texas case was unusual because the pastures in question had received 5 inches of rainfall within the previous 30 days.

“Thus, the pasture did not fit the typical young flush of growth following a drought-ending rain or young growth following a frost we typically associate with prussic acid formation in other species of forage,” Redmon said.

As drought has spread across America the past four to six weeks, various state extension services have issued reminders to livestock producers about the potential for prussic acid poisoning, and several have been published on Drovers/CattleNetwork.

The tragic death of the 15 steers in Texas, unfortunately, was magnified by the Internet storm that followed when the GM label was erroneously attached to the forage. The story was picked up by numerous web sites and bloggers – many of which are either anti-GM or anti-agriculture. Very few bothered to check the facts before posting and re-posting the story.

Additionally, a couple of YouTube videos were posted by unknowledgeable individuals condemning the use of GM technology, lamenting the suffering of the animals, and generally attacking agriculture. That, unfortunately, is the downside to the Information Age – stories can spread rapidly, and misinformation seems to spread exponentially faster than the truth.