FOCUS ON AGRICULTURE: July prime time for ergot in pasture grasses

Posted: Jul. 2, 2014 12:42 pm Updated: Jul. 30, 2014 4:15 pm

The first two weeks of July are prime time for ergot to appear in common pasture grasses.

Wet, cool weather, followed by heat and humidity, creates favorable conditions for the disease. "With the amount of moisture in the ground and in the plants, the state turns into an incubator when it gets hot," University of Missouri Extension forage specialist Craig Roberts said.

Ergot, a fungus, produces toxic alkaloid compounds.

"It will be another ergot year," said Tim Evans, toxicologist in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. Ergot appeared in pockets of Missouri in 2013.

In pastures reporting ergot, Roberts and Evans suggest cutting the pasture to a four-inch height and baling later to remove toxic seed heads and low quality stems.

If hay is made, producers should be aware that at least half of the alkaloid concentration remains, even if the hay is field cured and stored for more than a year.

Time is critical, Evans said, because ergot infestation can potentially kill cattle and even horses, especially when it's hot and humid. The toxins constrict blood vessels, increase respiration rates, raise core body temperatures and limit blood supplies to the extremities of animals. Ergot poisoning sometimes is confused with fescue toxicosis, which is commonly referred to as "fescue foot" in the winter and "summer slump" during the hotter times of the year.

Evans said ergot poisoning can look like fescue toxicosis on steroids. Cattle poisoned by ergot, like those with "summer slump," often have elevated body temperatures and seek relief in the shade or stand in water to cool off. Other symptoms can include overall malaise characterized by rapid breathing, decreased appetite and milk production.

Ergot also can cause abortion in pregnant cows, possible sloughing of the switches of tails and tips of ears, event during the summer, severe lameness and potentially death.

Ergot bodies on seed heads look like mouse droppings. The ergot bodies are easily visible in the seed head of cereal grains such as barley, oats, wheat, triticale and rye as well as many common grasses such as timothy and tall fescue.

Grain samples

There is some evidence that the "book values" used for many years to calculate the amount of phosphorus and potassium removed by grain during harvest may no longer be accurate for the crops produced today.

With funding from the Nutrient Research and Education Council, University of Illinois crop scientist Emerson Nafziger said a new project may provide a better idea of how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are contained in harvested grain of corn, soybean and wheat.

Nafziger said he hopes to get most of the grain samples needed for the study from individual producers across Illinois, with samples sent in right out of the field, when grain is stored or after it is delivered to the elevator. Plans call for looking first at wheat samples.

Samples can be sent in now by following these procedures:

Before harvest or at the time grain is stored or moved, the cooperating producer will send an email to to request a mailer. The email should contain the cooperator's name, mailing address and what grain (wheat, corn or soybean) is being sent in.

Prepaid mailers will be sent to the cooperator. The mailer will include a plastic sample bag with a label that has the cooperator's name, crop and a blank to fill in with the yield level (estimated or measured) of the field.

The sample bag is sized to hold about 6-8 ounces of grain. The grain should be dry (at or below standard moisture) in order for it to keep well during shipping. Place the bag with grain into the pre-addressed mailer and mail it.

Results will be summarized by region with no identification of individual cooperators. Samples will be collected over 2014 and 2015.

"With a large number of samples, we will be able to see how much variability there is in removal numbers and generate better removal numbers for Illinois producers," Nafziger said.

Compiled by Herald-Whig Staff Writer Deborah Gertz Husar.