Ergot-contaminated feed a growing problem

Pelleted screenings | Better grain cleaning methods result in higher concentrations in screenings fed to cattle

Russ Horvey confidently handed out ergot advice for years as an agricultural specialist.

However, his cattle didn’t show the classic signs that he had always warned farmers about when they died last winter from ergot poisoning.

His cattle’s feet and tails didn’t fall off. Instead, his weaned calves refused to eat their feed.

“I couldn’t get them to eat it,” Horvey said about the pelleted screenings that turned out to be contaminated with ergot.

His bull calves refused to eat the pelleted screenings for four months. However, the weaned heifer calves ate them for a month and then came down with pneumonia and foot rot symptoms. Horvey ruled out ergot poisoning because of a lack of classical ergot symptoms, such as frozen tails and feet.

He didn’t know the pelleted feed was contaminated at dangerously high levels of ergot until he sent a feed sample to a lab.

Two heifer calves and one yearling heifer died and one bull had bad feet and couldn’t be sold.

“I was fortunate,” said Horvey, who no longer feeds pelleted screenings for fear of high concentrated ergot levels.

The pellets tested nine times higher than the safe feeding level of ergot.

“Now I’m afraid of screening pellets.”

Horvey doesn’t know why feed companies are allowed to create feed from poisonous grain without consequences.

“Here you’ve got a poison that kills cattle and they suffer so badly, and companies are allowed to blend ergot because it’s always been there,” said Horvey, who farms near Delburne, Alta.

Bryan Doig, Saskatchewan Agriculture’s feed specialist, said he knows of a farmer who lost 27 cows after they ate ergot infested swath grazing. Another 17 became lame.

The farmer’s triticale, barley and pea swaths were infested with ergot, as well as the bales that were made from the extra swaths. Tests found ergot levels at 3,000 parts per billion, far higher than the upper safe recommended limit of 100 p.p.b.

“It’s not just grain that has ergot,” said Doig, who warns farmers to test all their feed.

Farmers reported high levels of ergot in grain across the Prairies this fall, and it’s now showing up in feed samples.

Ergot would show up every six or seven years in the 1980s and 1990s, but now it appears consistently in grain and hay fields every year, said Doig.

Modern technology allows grain companies and seed cleaning plants to clean most ergot out of grain, which allows it to be sold. However, it means the screenings often have toxic levels.

“Sometimes producers pick it up and try and feed it to their livestock. It’s just like playing with a match,” said Doig.

“If you find ergot in a grain sample, I would have it measured.”

Livestock specialists say that 0.1 percent ergot in feed, or one ergot in 1,000 kernels, is the safe upper limit. However, they have seen cattle’s feet slough off at .04 percent, making specialists believe some ergot is more virulent.

Doig said farmers should test their feed at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Prairie Diagnostic Services lab in Saskatoon.

The lab can measure 12 key micotoxins, such as fusarium, for $84, and test for ergot for $63.

“It’s a tool producers in Western Canada can use,” Doig said.

Ergot has more than 40 kinds of alkaloids, but only six are believed to be a concern in livestock. The Prairie Diagnostic Services lab can measure four of the six main alkaloids of ergot and is waiting for a federal permit to measure the final two.

Laboratory officials hope the new service will help them develop a better recommending guide for feeding ergot-infested grain.

“We don’t yet have charts to say, ‘if you feed this many parts per billion, you will see tails start to freeze at -30 C,’ ” said Doig.

Dr. Barry Blakley at the Prairie Diagnostic Services lab said he used to receive two to three calls a year about ergot poisoning. Now, he receives five or six calls a day, and the lab tests five to six samples of ergot infested feed a day.

“The numbers have increased dramatically in the last two years.”

One of the biggest ergot hot spots is along the Saskatchewan and Alberta border. The amount of mycotoxins, especially fusarium, is also causing serious problems in feed.

Blakley said pellets made from weed screenings are the biggest problem. He believes manufacturers should test every ingredient before pelleting.

“It appears the pelleting process makes the ergot more bioavailable,” he said.

Ergot toxicity affects cattle in several ways, including the hormone prolactin, which enhances milk flow. One poisoning of ergot any time in the lactation will reduce lactation levels.

Some ergot alkaloids are also related to LSD and psychedelically affect cattle. The most common alkaloids restrict blood vessels, which cause extremities such as feet, ears, teats and tails to fall off in cold weather because of the reduced blood flow.

The new Canadian Feed Research Centre in North Battleford, Sask., plans to study ergot as part of its mandate to develop high-value animal feed from low-value crops. The centre installed a Swedish-designed BoMill seed sorter that can remove ergot from grain and leave all the grain. The BoMill sorts seed by crude protein level rather than colour and can operate at three tonnes per hour.