Ergot threat grows with brome grass discovery

Reports of poisoning rise | Producers urged to take and test feed samples to ensure quality and safety

Ergot has moved into brome grass, which is causing concern for those watching the spread of the toxic fungus and dealing with the fallout.


Barry Blakley, a toxicologist and head of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s veterinary biomedical sciences department, said he used to receive one or two calls a year about ergot poisoning. Now he gets four or five a day.


“It is the number one problem right today in livestock,” he said.


There have been several wrecks in feedlots, dairies, sheep operations and to a lesser extent cow-calf operations, he added.


Blakley has several theories about the increasing number of poisonings but said the fact that the fungus has been able to find new hosts is significant.


Ergot was historically found in rye.


“We’re seeing it in wheat, and in barley, and in oats and the really bad news is that we’re seeing it in brome grass,” Blakley said. 


“That’s where I think the real problem is.”


He said ergot will actually replace the seed in the head of grass or grain. Brome grass that isn’t cut is a good host and distributor.


“The ergot is implanting in the brome grass, and it’s a fungus, so it slowly spreads into the field,” he said.


“The brome grass has to be brought under control.”


Anecdotal data from Alberta shows that ergot spread is minimal in counties that cut ditches, which doesn’t allow brome grass to head out. Counties that don’t cut have problems.


The wetter springs of the past several years have contributed to the problem. Blakley said conditions in June, when the grasses are flowering, affect the spread. A hot, dry June would limit that ability.


Another factor is the move to no-till or low-till, which means the ergot isn’t ground into the soil and eaten by bugs as it would be in a summerfallow or tillage situation.


Cattle that eat feed contaminated with high levels of ergot suffer gangrene and lose limbs. Euthanasia is the only option.


Ergot poisoning also shuts down milk production. Blakley said one of the cases he investigated this year saw a flock of ewes unable to feed their lambs.


“My advice to the dairy farmers is really you shouldn’t feed any crop that contains any level of ergot in it or you’re asking for trouble,” he said.


Blakley said the biggest problem he has seen in rations is in pellets with weed screenings. Ergot can’t be easily separated from the screenings, and he said there is some suggestion the pelleting process enhances ergot’s viability.


Producers who are concerned about what they are feeding their livestock should have their feed tested, and Blakley said a proper sample is required because ergot doesn’t present uniformly. Samples that were supposed to be uniform have shown a 10-fold range in levels, he added.


He advised producers to take 20 or 30 samples from a bin, mix them together well and then submit a sample of that for testing.


Testing is also finding that the concentration of the actual harmful chemical varies widely, even within ergot particles. It’s why counting particles in a feed sample isn’t a good way to determine safety.


Weighing the ergot isn’t ideal either because it won’t indicate how much chemical is present.


“Chemical analysis is the real indication of what’s there.”


Blakley said producers shouldn’t be too quick to blame pellets for ergot poisoning.


He uses an acceptable range of 100 to 200 parts per billion when analyzing samples.


In one case this year, a sheep producer who was feeding pellets, green feed and silage blamed the pellets for his sick sheep.


Testing showed the pellets had ergot up to 250 p.p.b., but Blakley said he believed the sheep were sicker than they should be for that amount and asked for samples of the other feed.


The silage showed no ergot contamination.


“The green feed had 15,000 p.p.b. in it,” Blakley said. 


“That’s your problem right there.”


Prairie Diagnostic Services is able to analyze feed samples for ergot.


Blakley said promising work in Europe, where ergot is a big problem, suggests that binders in pellets can render the ergot unavailable.


“Some producers here are putting activated charcoal in their pellets,” he said. 


“That is binding the ergot. What I don’t know is does that bind the vitamins and a few other things that are needed.”


Other research is looking at enzymes in pellets to break down the ergot. 


Blakley said this is not yet approved in Canada.