Jolley: Five minutes with Dr. Craig Roberts and ergot

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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.

Q. Talk about the symptoms. If a rancher suspects he has a problem, what should he be looking for? 

A. The most visible symptom is heat stress. You will see excessive breathing problems—respiratory, etc. Cattle will try to cool off by standing in ponds, like they do when fescue gets toxic. But this is extreme and occurs with any grass.

Q. Once an animal is infected, are there treatments that can alleviate the problem?

A. Just remove the livestock and wait for the ergot bodies to fall off the seedhead. Ergot bodies will shatter much like seed shatters from the seedhead. After ergot bodies are removed or fall off, cattle can return.

Q. Walking the pasture, what are some of the tell-tale signs that Ergot is present? Is it found in hay, too? Early reports said fescue was the source. Are other grasses susceptible?

A. Simply seeing the ergot bodies is the sign. It is a can’t-miss sign. You can Google “ergot” and see what an ergot body looks like inside of a seedhead.  

(Note: Here is a photo of infected fescue)


It is in some of the hay sometimes; in Missouri, it has shown up if that hay was baled in June or early July. We do hear reports of rotary mowers knocking off the ergot bodies during the mowing. Just check to see if they are present before feeding the hay.

Reports are that it is a fescue problem because most of our pasture is fescue. But we have seen more ergot bodies in the ryegrass. They are also present in brome, timothy, etc. Small grains host ergot as well.

Q, When Ergot is found, what resources can a rancher call on to help alleviate the problem?

A. In our state, we like producers to contact their Extension offices (http://extension.missouri.edu/). That is a starting point and a way to ensure there is no misdiagnosis.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food industry journalist and columnist.


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