Watch Out For Toxic Ergotism Found In Hay This Year

The Ohio State University Extension Service said to watch for ergot problems in hays this year. The fungus, Claviceps purpurea, can invade the seed heads of grains and pasture grasses.

This toxic fungus can produce hallucinations and bizarre behavior (symptoms also known as St. Anthony’s Fire in people), as well as constriction of the blood vessels in the distal extremities, which causes a burning sensation and may cause a laminitis/founder in horses.??

Pregnant mares may abort.??Horses are the most sensitive to the poisoning and laminitis may develop before other symptoms.?? There is no treatment beyond removing the animal from the source of the toxins and good nursing care while it recovers.

In years with frequent rainfall, farmers often have difficulty harvesting their hay before it develops seed heads.?? Cool, wet weather during the flowering stages of plants favors growth of the toxic fungus, which may be detected by the presence of yellowish, sticky droplets on the infested flowers.

The Claviceps fungus grows on the seed heads and can be seen as elongated, hard, round projections, 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, brown to purplish black in color with a white interior if you crack them open. These growths on the seed heads are called ergots.??

Rye, triticale, wheat, durum, barley, oat, quack grass, crested wheat grass, brome grass, foxtail, rye grass, orchard grass, timothy, wild rye, and other grasses are also susceptible.?? Virtually any grain may also be infested with it.

If you’re anywhere that has had the unusually wet/humid weather this year, and your horses are grazing tall fields that have gone to seed, it would be wise to walk the fields and inspect the seed heads for ergots.?? Even low-level infestations may cause laminitis or abortion.??

Hay made from ergot-infested grasses is equally toxic, so it would be wise to carefully inspect all your hay, flake by flake, before you feed it.??Modern grain-processing techniques will usually sort out most ergot-infested kernels, and large manufacturers are aware of the potential for ergot poisoning.??

If you use locally grown and bagged plain grains, though, your risk of exposure from this source may be high er.??Inspect all cereal grains carefully and if you see anything that you suspect could be a Claviceps infestation, stop feeding it and take a sample to your local agricultural extension agent’s office for help with the identification.

If you find ergot in your pastures, grasses should be cut, baled and removed, but the baled grasses not fed to any livestock.??All pastures that have had an ergot infestation should have the grasses plowed under and should be reseeded in other crops for a few years to prevent the ergot fungus problem recurring.??

An alternative approach may be to keep the pastures regularly mowed before seed heads have a chance to develop. Contact your agricultural extension office for details and advice for your area.

Note:??Fungi from the same family may be especially prevalent on some types of lawn/turf grasses selectively bred to be drought and insect- resistant.??The fungi actually assist the grasses in a symbiotic way but can be toxic to livestock. It’s best to avoid letting your horses graze in areas that have been seeded with “improved” grass varieties.

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