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Managing Poisonous Pasture Plants

By Luke Jorgensen, AAg, Range Management Extension Specialist, Humboldt

July 2021

There are many species of poisonous plants that grow in Saskatchewan. Sometimes, these plants can be a risk to your livestock. Knowing the risks and managing accordingly is important to make sure your livestock stay healthy.

Poisonous plants should be considered when coming up with a grazing plan. You are much more likely to come across poisonous plants in native pastures, but they can still be an issue near wetlands and on saline soils in tame fields. Some of the more common poisonous plants you might find in Saskatchewan include water hemlock, seaside arrowgrass, death camas, locoweed and milkvetch. Shrubs like Saskatoon and chokecherry can also poison livestock that are forced to graze them. It can be difficult to keep track of all the potentially poisonous plants in your pastures, but there is a list of the plants to look out for on page 57 of Managing Saskatchewan Rangelands. Identifying poisonous plants is an important skill that will help you manage the risk to your grazing livestock.

While toxic plants are quite common, livestock poisonings are rare. This is because livestock tend to avoid eating poisonous plants when they have other options available. The best way to reduce the risk to your livestock is to make sure there is plenty of good forage available in your pastures. This is a smart practice for many other reasons, but it's especially important if you know there are toxic plants present.

Water Hemlock
Water hemlock growing in a pasture

Grazing time is another thing to consider when managing for toxic plants. Seaside arrowgrass, for example, grows faster in the spring compared to the species around it, so waiting to graze until later in the season can reduce the risk. Livestock are also more likely to eat poisonous plants when moved on to a fresh pasture, especially if they are hungry. Ensure your livestock are well-fed before moving them to a pasture with toxic plants to reduce the risk of poisoning.

One last consideration is your mineral program. Some toxic plants accumulate salts, which can make them more appealing to livestock who are missing something in their diet. Therefore, a good mineral program can help prevent your animals from eating things they shouldn't.

The symptoms of poisoning can present as anything from reduced animal performance to convulsions and mortality. You should consult your veterinarian if you lose any animals or suspect your livestock have been poisoned. Stock Poisoning Plants of Western Canada is an excellent resource to help identify toxic plants in your pasture, as well as the signs of poisoning and the grazing conditions that make issues with toxic plants more likely.

Poisonous pasture plants are something to be aware of when making management decisions, but, if managed right, they usually don't cause any problems. For help identifying and managing for toxic plants in your pastures, call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-8377.