Texas livestock tragedy compounded by Internet misinformation

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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.

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R Machen    
Uvalde, TX  |  June, 28, 2012 at 08:56 AM

Excellent piece Greg. Thank you.

dwain holmes    
TX  |  June, 28, 2012 at 09:21 AM

A great article but sadly one that will get little attention!I fed a few cattle for a few years and also hogs.I lost several hogs to nitrate poisining caused from eating droughth stressed pig weed so know these things happen and recall My Father talking about cattle dieing from eating cane! Although I farmed for a few years ,I spent over 40 years in meat packing(beef)where for 36 years I was a supervisor,the last 10 a Food safety officer for a plant! It never ceased to amaze Me how the press would do everything they could to blow anything out of proportion!It was every thing from Salmonela,Ecoli,Mad Cow,humane Handling and of late the so called pink slime. After many years in the industry I feel that the whole meat production system,from ranch to grocery store does not do enough to get the message out to the public.We need more videos,articles(like this one) put before the general public!It is a great article but it is preaching to the chior here as 90+% who read this here already know what is going on. Peta or some nobody chef gets national and international coverage when they come out with thier propaganda! LET"S DO THE SAME!!!

dwain holmes    
TX  |  June, 28, 2012 at 09:24 AM

My let's do the same comment came out wrong ,should have said let's get the truth out there!!!

Ohio  |  June, 28, 2012 at 09:24 AM

Excellent analisis, too bad most anti ag. bloggers will not read it.

texas  |  June, 28, 2012 at 10:01 AM

I agree John. I know a lot of farmers right here locally that are having great success with grass and I just got done planting 30 acres of it and plan to plant 20 more in the fall. I've told everyone that i have spoken too that we need to let the Aggies get to the bottom of it before we go to making hasty decisions and radical conclusions and that's what i'm doing! Tifton 85 and Jiggs Bermuda grass have brought us a long ways in the past 10 years and if we are going to continue to feed this hungry nation we are going to have to be progressive with our farming techniques.

John Nalivka    
Vale, Oregon  |  June, 28, 2012 at 09:53 AM

Excellent Greg! Unfortunately, the Web is an easy means to distort the facts and we can all name many examples! Worse is that there are too many Americans who look no further than YouTube to get information!

Myra Morrison    
Rockwell, NC  |  June, 28, 2012 at 10:38 AM

Just like Johnson grass after frost, certain conditions can cause unusual results (Drought, heavy rains, frost and freeze). The one thing that can help protect the cattle is offering them hay and some grain daily so that they are not dependent on any one feed source. If you can give them access to hay at night and graze during the day it can greatly reduce the stress to the animal's gut.

T Hulet    
Colorado  |  June, 28, 2012 at 01:02 PM

I lost 27 cows and had 40 other cows abort calves in 1991 due to eating onions, i am glad that did not hit the press at the time.

oh  |  June, 28, 2012 at 02:07 PM

sadly it seems there is no integrity in journalism ( sorry, the mainstream media ). does any of them check facts, verify sources, perform due diligence? some of these publishers needs held accountable and stung hard for damaging info whether due to poor follow thru or blatant disregard driven by increased ratings or circulation

oh  |  June, 28, 2012 at 02:21 PM

Andy, i agree with you and John, but it seems like the better we do the more we are chastized

USA  |  June, 28, 2012 at 02:21 PM

I happened to notice that the FOX Channel affiliate in Lubbock Texas airing Texas AgriLife Extension Service announcements aired a few days ago a news release that seemed to come straight from the EWG, the Environemtal Working Group, also known as the Envirnmental Worry Group for its unreliable hyperbole. It is also known as the Endlessly Wrong Group by the restuarant lobby's outlet, Consumer Freedom. http://www.consumerfreedom.com/2011/08/4501-ewg-the-endlessly-wrong-group/

Florida  |  June, 29, 2012 at 09:28 AM

We have used Tifton grasses for years and like most things when the chemical compounds are affected by outside influences such as drought, excessive rain or water, etc., the end result can be potentially dangerous acids. The only way to know this is through costly testing on a weekly basis and most individuals don't have the resourses and the labs close enough to make these weekly testing. The media is not the friend of farmers or ranchers because a negative article gets much more attention than good news and the truth is always lost in the rush to get attention. Since less than 10% eat grass and leaves, the remaining 90% are going to buy meat and enjoy the taste. We will continue to raise beef and other meats so the 90% will buy and eat what they chose. Hopefully the American way of choices will continue!

oh  |  June, 29, 2012 at 11:57 AM

hopefully !

SD  |  June, 30, 2012 at 05:42 PM

Thanks for keeping us informed and armed with the FACTS, Greg. Unfortunately, I, like many others have had a busy week and only found this today. Timeliness being the ruler of the airways, it's too late for a message to CBS to have much effect. Such media giants seem to have a 'shoot and run' mentality with bad news about agriculture stories.

AR  |  July, 01, 2012 at 09:26 AM

Todays media mostly does a disservice to everyone. Hype everything as loudly as possible whether it is AG news or politics. Wish the public could get to vote on who gets to offer news and or pull the license from those offering mostly partial information or disinformation.

oh  |  July, 02, 2012 at 12:49 PM

the misinfo is still being passed around, a newspaper article in east-central oh stated the calves died of cyanide poisoning in their sunday issue. i still think the general media needs crucified for poor reporting

December, 31, 2012 at 09:02 AM

I would like to know how this bermuda grass was fertilized. In our experience, over-fertilizing with artificial nitrogen caused more problems with prussic acid poisoning than we could justify. When the fertility available comes from mob-grazing and subsequent fertilization with manure, the levels of nutrients are well balance, so there is no problem with dangerous levels of prussic acid in regrowth of anything, even sorghum-sudan grass and Johnsongrass. And yes, the time of day when cattle graze is also a factor. The chemical makeup of the grass changes with heat and light, causing grasses to lignify during the hottest part of the day. Oversimplifying the facts and overlooking multitude of factors that can affect the relationships between living things makes for a wealth of misinformation.

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