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Ergot Implications

By Trevor Lennox, Regional Forage Specialist, Swift Current

December 2016

The 2016 growing season has resulted in an increased number of ergot bodies showing up in cereals and grasses this year and producers need to be aware of the implications of ergot on livestock.  

Ergot is a fungal disease of the seed heads of cereals and grasses. Ergot is most prevalent when continuous moist conditions prevail during both stages of the disease cycle. First, moisture is needed at the soil surface during spring and early summer to promote germination of ergot bodies. Second, wet, cloudy and cool weather extends the period of flowering and increases the window of infection for spores to enter the flowers.

Ergotism can still be common in livestock when fed contaminated grain at the farm level. Symptoms may include lameness, loss of body parts from gangrene, abortions in pregnant animals, seizures, and eventually death. Consumption of contaminated feeds with sub-lethal doses may still lead to problems of poor growth and performance, loss of milk production in lactating animals, and animals going “off feed.” In some cases where intoxication isn’t lethal, animals may recover once the contaminated feed is removed.  However, in cases where lactating animals are affected the reduced milk production effects often persist for the duration of the lactation. 

Livestock differ in their susceptibility to ergot poisoning. Young or pregnant animals are considered highly susceptible. For beef cattle, 50 to 200 ppb (parts per billion) of ergot toxins (as based on a toxin analysis) are the recommended total dietary intake limits, on a dry matter basis.

If ergot bodies were observed in a cereal crop, it should be tested for ergot levels to make sure it is safe for livestock. Also be aware that ergot levels are typically higher around the edge of a field, as this is where the spores come in from roadside grasses. At time of harvest, it may be beneficial to bin these areas of higher ergot contamination separately so they can be managed and/or marketed differently from the rest of the field.

Be very careful when purchasing grain screenings (ie. pellets), as they can have very high levels of ergot. Quite often ergot bodies are picked up in the screening process, thus causing ergot levels to become much more concentrated. Always test screenings for ergot levels before feeding to livestock.

There are also cases on grass pastures and hay land where ergot levels can be at levels high enough to cause problems. Since ergot bodies are produced on grass seed heads, it would be after seed development that any sign of ergot problems would be observed. Symptoms observed may be increased amount of lameness when livestock are using the feed.

For further information contact Trevor Lennox at 306-778-8294 or trevor.lennox@gov.sk.ca.

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