The problem most cattlemen in the Midwest battled for the past few years was a lack of good pasture. The drought meant little grass and expensive hay. This spring, the drought broke with a vengeance. Near record spring rains encouraged good growth but muddy conditions discouraged cutting.
Left to grow to maturity, grass developed seedheads. The moisture encouraged seedhead fungus and an animal health issue caused by ergot. Wikipedia defines it this way: “Ergot or ergot fungi refers to a group of fungi of the genus Claviceps. The most prominent member of this group is Claviceps purpurea. This fungus grows on rye and related plants, and produces alkaloids that can cause ergotism in humans and other mammals who consume grains contaminated with its fruiting structure (called ergot sclerotium). Claviceps includes about 50 known species, mostly in the tropical regions.”
Yeah, it might be a tropical disease but we’ve had some tropic-style weather this spring; very wet and warm. And now, instead of worrying about a lack of forage, cattlemen have to worry about the dangers of too much forage. Several counties in Missouri have reported ergot and extension agents have warned cattlemen to be on the lookout for the problem. Several deaths attributed to ergot have been reported in northeast Missouri.
Two weeks ago, John Maday, managing editor for Drovers/Cattlenetwork, reported specialists at Iowa State University warned the fungus produces toxic alkaloids that can lead to poisoning in cattle. ISU Extension beef veterinarian Grant Dewell and veterinary toxicologist Steve Ensley published a two-page fact sheet ‘that describes ergot poisoning, including identifying pasture or hay samples and recognizing clinical signs in cattle, along with diagnosis, treatment and prevention information.”
Click here (ergot fact sheet) for a copy from the ISU Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine website.
For more information about ergot and to find out just how widespread the problem is, I contacted Dr. Craig Roberts at the University of Missouri. Here is what he said:
Q. Ranchers are reporting cattle deaths from Ergot - Seed head fungus - in pasture grasses. First, how widespread is the problem and what causes it?
A. The problem in Missouri was widespread, though symptoms did not often include cattle deaths. It is caused by Claviceps - “ergot” - fungi infecting the seedheads of grasses. This year, we had lots of rain, which had two effects. One effect was it prevented pastures from being cut, thereby allowing grasses to mature and develop seedheads. A second effect was it created a moist environment, which created an incubator effect once the air temperature increased.