Rancher warns feed buyers of ration containing ergot

225 times above allowable limit | Ergot restricts blood flow to extremities

The first sign of trouble, in hindsight, was the unusually excited behaviour of the yearlings, said Alberta rancher Wayne Brost.

Then many of them went lame, which he initially thought was due to foot rot, but the condition did not respond to treatment.

Then the cattle began to lose their hoofs, ears and tails.

And that’s when feed tests revealed high concentrations of ergot in feed that Brost had bought from a feed company in the region.

Two weeks ago, the Walsh area rancher shipped 11 animals with missing extremities and other severe symptoms of ergotism. He and his wife had already destroyed three animals to end their suffering.

“I think there’s got to be something done to make sure this doesn’t happen because it’s not fun to deal with,” he said.

Brost is negotiating with the feed company for reimbursement and/or other compensation related to cattle losses, so he would not name the company out of concern it will jeopardize the deal.

However, he said the company has credited his account and brought new feed since the problem first arose.

Brost said he wanted to sound a warning to other buyers of commercial cattle feed about potential ergot contamination.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommends ergot levels not exceed two to three parts per million in feed for cattle, sheep and horses. However, Abed Zeibdawi of the CFIA emphasized it is a recommendation rather than a regulation.

Agriculture Canada researcher Tim McAllister, an expert in ruminant nutrition, said the ergot cutoff level for ruminant safety is 0.1 percent. Any more than that in feed will affect cattle health.

“If he’s getting those kinds of symptoms, the concentrations would be pretty high,” McAllister said after hearing about the case.

“When the concentrations are high and the microbial population (in the ruminant gut) is not given time to adapt or the levels are too high for adaptation to occur, then you can get the type of clinical symptoms that you are describing.”

Brost bought the feed for 60 yearling calves he was wintering. When the calves wouldn’t eat it, he called the feed company, which initially suggested he was feeding such good hay that the animals ignored the ration.

“I said, ‘well, if my hay is that good, why do I need your feed in the first place?’ ” recounted Brost.

After repeated complaints, a feed company representative visited the farm and suggested he try feeding it to his cows.

“I’m assuming their feed is all tested and there should be nothing wrong with it, other than the fact that maybe my calves were being a little fussy,” Brost said.

“We ended up feeding it to every bovine on the place: our bulls got a little bit, our cows got a little bit, the bred heifers…. At the end of the day, well over 200 have consumed the product.”

Problems persisted so he sent a feed sample to Missouri for testing. Results showed 225 times the allowable American limit for ergot.

“It was loaded with ergot. At that high a rate, somebody screwed up really, really badly … because at the rate that that was, there was no way that should have got past anybody.”

In the meantime, he stopped providing the feed and has 10 tons left in his bin. The feed company has said it will come and get it.

Brost has heard through the community grapevine that other ranchers in the area were affected, but he hasn’t confirmed it.

McAllister said cattle are highly susceptible to ergot. It produces alkaloids that constrict the bloodstream, reducing blood flow to the limbs and extremities.

Symptoms begin with hyperexcitability, followed by depression and then loss of ears and hoofs. It also causes abortions in pregnant animals, McAllister added.

Brost is worried about longer-term effects on his commercial Hereford cattle that ate the contaminated feed. He and his wife are keeping a close eye on 46 heifers to see how they fare.

“I’m not trying to be melodramatic or anything but honestly, I wouldn’t want anybody else to go through this because it hasn’t been fun, seeing the calves every day and wondering.”

Ergot is most commonly found in rye, but last year there was a considerable amount reported in wheat and barley crops because of wet conditions and weather favourable to the disease.

What is ergot?

  • ergot is a cereal and grass disease caused by a fungus called Claviceps purpurea
  • ergot reduces yield and quality of crops
  • it appears as dark purple to black sclerotia, which replace grain in cereal heads
  • ergot is generally more prevalent in rye and triticale than other cereals but can infect wheat, barley, durum and other small grains
  • human poisoning from ergot was common in Europe during the Middle Ages, when ergot-infected rye bread was often eaten
  • if eaten by cattle, ergot infected crops cause a disease called ergotism. Cattle are the most susceptible to ergot
  • clinical symptoms of ergotism in cattle include hyperexcitability, belligerence, staggering, convulsions and backward arching of the back
  • gangrenous ergotism involves loss of the extremities including hoofs, ears, noses and tails
  • the only treatment is to remove the ergot-contaminated feed

Source: North Dakota State University

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