Even very low levels of ergot in feed can decrease livestock production and health

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The current recommendation of not exceeding two to three parts per million of ergot alkaloids in ruminant feed could be too high, according to research being conducted at the University of Saskatchewan.

Dr. Gabriel Ribeiro is an associate professor there and the Saskatchewan Beef Industry Chair, and his research over the past four years has been assessing the risk of ergot alkaloids in feed and the impact this toxin has on cattle.

Ergot is a fungal pathogen that infects the head of cereals and some grasses. Open pollinated species, such as rye and some forage grasses, are most at risk to ergot development. Ergot bodies — dark brown or black cylindrical shapes — take the place of a developing kernel and are harvested in the grain or eaten by a grazing animal. Once ingested, the alkaloids in the ergot body are released.

Ribeiro says ergot alkaloids are vaso-constricters, meaning they reduce blood flow, and cause gangrenous effects on livestock. This is why in toxicity situations cattle may lose a tail, ear, or even part of a hoof.

The work Ribeiro is doing has identified that negative impacts of ergot in a ration can happen at much lower rates than two to three ppm inclusion. He says that reduced intake and poorer gains happen at much lower levels and that toxicity symptoms have begun as they approach the three ppm inclusion.

What does this mean for producers? Ribeiro says it’s very important to test feed for ergot alkaloids, especially if using alternative feeds such as screenings. Animals exposed to the toxin can recover, but they can take weeks to do so, with some symptoms lingering for months.

Listen below to the full discussion with Ribeiro, including a discussion on symptoms, testing, animal welfare, and recovery. 

Read more about ergot on the Beef Cattle Research Council’s information page, here.

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