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Identify and Treat Algae Accordingly to Protect Your Livestock

By Alicia Sopatyk, PAg, Regional Livestock Specialist, Tisdale;
Jenifer Heyden, PAg, Regional Livestock Specialist, North Battleford

June 2017

Cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as blue green algae, are a type of planktonic organism that are abundant in surface water. Reports of blue green algae have been making their way across the prairie provinces over the past couple of weeks. Summer heat, concentrated nutrients and standing water are the perfect combination for algae growth. Algae can cause esthetic and functionality concerns where pumps and pipes are being clogged, but more worrisome, blue green algae can also produce toxins that can cause sickness and in some cases even death in livestock.

Identify the Bloom:

The first step is to properly identify the algae growth in the water body as not all forms of algae are harmful. Look at the water body carefully. Blue green algae may take on the appearance of grass clippings, pea soup or a blue paint slick across the surface of the water, and may be concentrated near the shoreline. While wearing rubber or latex gloves, scoop a handful of water and algae, with your fingers spread slightly apart, let the water drain away and take a good look at what remains. If mostly everything drains through the fingers and all that’s left is a film on your hands, it is a planktonic type algae and could be blue green algae. It is also important to note the smell of the water; blue green algae may give the water a pigpen or grassy odour.

Blue green algae produce toxins that have the potential to cause sickness and sometimes death when consumed by livestock. A period of heat and calm winds can provide the right conditions for blue green algae to flourish. Toxins may be released in small quantities throughout the lifespan of the blue green algae, but they are released in high concentrations when it dies. A strong wind, sudden cool temperatures, a physical disturbance or treatment can cause the blue green algae to die. A bloom and toxin release can occur very quickly. Animals that consume the affected water may die suddenly, or suffer from weakness, staggering or photosensitization depending on the specific toxin and amount ingested.

Manage the Water Source:

The saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Taking steps to protect water quality can go a long way in terms of livestock health and productivity, but also decreasing toxin risk and by improving environmental benefits. Limit nutrient loading by limiting direct access by livestock to the water source. Use off-site or remote water systems for livestock to drink from. Grassed waterways and buffer strips are also good management practices that can help reduce nutrient loading. Increasing the depth of the dugout and installing an aeration system will help reduce water temperatures and keep the water moving. There are also commercial products available such as blue dyes which act as a shade on the water, decreasing sunlight infiltration and reducing algae growth.

Treat the Problem:

Not all algae are toxic and it is important to identify the algae to ensure proper treatment, if necessary. Dugouts with blue green algae can be treated using products that are registered for use on surface water. Always read and follow the label instructions for treatment, as the active ingredient in each product can vary. Using more than the recommended amount can destroy some of the beneficial organisms, affecting water quality.  Treatment causes the cyanobacteria cells to die, break open and release toxins, if present. The concentration of these toxins can be very high therefore it is important to stop using the water while the toxins dissipate. Once a water source has been treated, livestock should be moved to a different water source for two-four weeks. Studies have shown that toxins can be present up to one month after treatment, but are most concentrated in the first two weeks. Timing of treatment is also important; avoid times of runoff and keep a record of treatments and treatment dates.

Algae come in all types, shapes and forms. Monitor your water source for algae growth and contact your Regional Livestock Specialist if you’d like assistance in determining the type of bloom or corrective action.

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