Ergot a Serious Problem in Feed This Year

ALBERTA, CANADA - Ergot is being found in feed grain at much higher levels than usual. The ergot problem, precipitated by the spring weather conditions, is very widespread across most of Alberta and in other Prairie Provinces as well.
calendar icon 3 November 2010
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"Weather conditions this year when plants were heading and flowering was very cool with high humidity and it took more time than usual for the plants to pollinate," says Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. "Airborne ergot spores from previous crops infected the developing heads. This year, there's a problem with not only rye, but triticale, wheat, barley, oats and even some of the grasses; producers are finding that ergots are presents at much higher levels than usually seen in all of these crop types."

Ergot causes three serious problems when fed to an animal. For females in the breeding herd, any ergot in grain or hay will cause an abortion. This applies to not just cows, but horses, pigs and chickens as well; all of these animals will be affected if given feed that contains ergot. Tolerance for ergot in pregnant or breeding animal rations is zero.

Feeder and growing animals are not immune to the effects of ergot. Animal performance is impaired. It is often seen as poor daily gains and lower growth rates. It will take six to eight weeks for the slower growth rates to become apparent.

The greatest concern, after the threat to reproduction, is that ergot reduces the blood flow to the extremities, such as the tail, ears and hooves or claws. If ergot levels are high enough, the animals will start to slough off their hooves, ears and tails. The reduced blood flow also makes the animals more susceptible to frostbite in colder weather. It is unlikely that animals affected to this extent will ever recover.

"The Ag-Info Centre has been receiving a lot of calls about buying screenings as a feed source," says Dr Yaremcio. "While screenings reduce costs of feeding over the winter, the cautionary factor here is that if there is any ergot at all in the screenings, there will be problems in the herd.

"The ergot limit for pigs is zero. For all other species, the maximum limit is one kernel per thousand or 0.1 per cent by weight. In cattle, you can allow a maximum of 12g of ergot consumption per day; that's a quarter of an ounce. It's easy to see that it doesn't take much ergot to start causing problems. It may take six to eight weeks, but problems will start showing up."

Some feed mills are not accepting ergot levels above 0.04 to 0.06 per cent in purchased grains. This is to reduce risk to those purchasing complete feeds and pelleted rations.

When it comes to swath grazing, there is no easy way to measure for ergot. On a case-by-case, field-by-field basis, producers will have to evaluate their swaths, pulling them apart, calculating how much ergot is present and making a judgement call.

"If a swath looks like it may contain borderline toxic levels of ergot, dilute out the ergot level by feeding forage that does not have ergot. When in doubt dilute, as it is better to be on the safe side," said Dr Yaremcio. "This means diluting the feed with other feeds that are ergot-free, and not giving the livestock full feed on the swath grazing material."

Two factsheets provide additional information on how to prevent or manage ergot infections online:

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