Grain fungus harmful to cattle found in southwest Missouri

Thursday, August 7, 2014 | 4:38 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Farmers and ranchers in southwest Missouri are being urged to monitor livestock after ergot, a fungus that can be deadly for cattle, was spotted in several hayfields and pastures.

Ergot is an airborne fungus that affects seed heads of cereal grains such as rye, barley, oat and wheat. It is most prevalent in wet, humid years.

Ergot is showing up so often that agronomists are telling farmers to take a hard look at fields where cattle may graze, according to Sarah Kenyon, an agricultural specialist for the University Missouri Extension Service in Texas County. If the fungus is prevalent, they should consider moving cattle to a different location.

"If every seed head is affected and the whole field is covered, that's when they should start worrying," Kenyon said Thursday.

It wasn't clear if any cattle have died from ergot poisoning in Missouri this year. Messages left with the Missouri Department of Agriculture were not immediately returned.

A report from the University of Nebraska says all animals are susceptible to ergot poisoning but cattle are most often affected.

The ergot fungus produces toxic compounds called ergot alkaloids that affect the small arteries of cattle. Extremities are most often affected, causing loss of the tips of ears and tail. Feet and legs can be affected, too — some cattle lose their hooves. In extreme cases, they can die.

Affected grains will be dark within the seed head, Kenyon said. Cattle consuming small amounts of ergot may be unaffected, but those who consume too much show symptoms similar to heat stress. Kenyon said they might seek relief in shade or stand in water, breathing can become rapid and milk production can drop off.

In addition to moving cattle, Kenyon urged producers to consider other feed sources if there is widespread ergot infection in fields where cattle graze.

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