Ergot continues to cause concerns

Feed manufacturers must sell a safe product, but are under no obligation to test for ergot alkaloids

There’s no simple or accurate test for ergot levels in cattle pellets.

As more Manitoba producers link cases of ergotism to pellet feed, farmers are being urged to use caution and test for ergot alkaloids.

“It’s very sad,” said Wayne Tomlinson, an extension veterinarian with the province. “You’re doing the right thing, you’re feeding your animals what you think is good-quality feed and they are not thriving, it’s very sad when you’re doing the right things and it’s not turning out right.”

Four cattle producers have contacted the Manitoba Co-operator in recent weeks, indicating they are seeking resolution with feed-manufacturing companies following cases of ergotism in their herds, resulting from pellet feed exceeding acceptable limits of ergot alkaloids.

Tomlinson said that wet conditions last year have led to a greater presence of the fungus.

“We had a lot of feed grains because the feed was damaged, so it is certainly a year where we would have a lot of potential for ergot poisoning,” he said, adding nutritionists would tell producers the best way to avoid ergot toxicity is to avoid feeding ergot-contaminated feed.

“But that is easier said than done,” Tomlinson added. “They can even get this grazing in mature grasses, so whether you’re grazing mature pasture, grass that has ergot in the seeds, or you’re feeding, the best thing is to recognize that there is a risk.”

The veterinarian said testing pellet feed for the toxic fungus is really the only way to know if it is present. However, getting a definitive feed or grain sample can prove challenging.

“Sampling is always difficult when we are dealing with anything in feed, in that it can be really, really difficult to get representative sampling,” he said. “Because there is variation across the field, there’s low spots and high spots, so the crop is different throughout the field, it’s different throughout the bin, maybe two or three bins get mixed together, sampling is just extremely difficult.”

Knowing exactly how widespread the problem of ergotism is also presents challenges. Because it’s not a reportable disease, increases are often cited with anecdotal evidence.

“We’ve been hearing a lot from the producers that there seems to be an increase in ergot issues out west,” said Annie Savoie, national manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s biotechnology and microbiology section. “We have not necessarily seen that in our monitoring programs, per se, but that’s what we’re hearing from producers.”

The agency is in the process of implementing a new method of monitoring ergot alkaloids, she said. Previous monitoring was based on programs looking for mycotoxins and “was not necessarily suitable” to ergot alkaloids.

It’s also in the process of updating the Feeds Act regulations “in order to develop a modernized risk- and outcome-based regulatory framework for feed.” As part of this process, the agency is reviewing feed controls and standards, as well as evaluating a proposal to reduce the maximum limits on ergot alkaloids in manufactured feed.

Currently, one kilogram of cattle feed can contain no more than three milligrams of ergot alkaloids. However, there is nothing in the Feeds Act or regulatory guidelines that require feed manufacturers to test their products for ergot alkaloids.

“And per the Feed Act and Regulation, we stipulate that all feed must be safe for livestock, humans and the environment,” Savoie said. “Testing is not mandatory. However, that being said, the feed manufacturer is responsible for selling feed that complies with the Feed Act and Regulations, so the manufacturers may have to test the feed in order to make sure it meets the regulatory requirements.”

Tomlinson said that if producers have not tested feed, but think there may be a problem with ergot alkaloids, they should keep an eye out for the symptoms of ergotism in their herds.

“Typically we see clinical signs related to the ergot alkaloids, which cause vassal constitution… so what we see are signs related to that — extremities will be cool, the tails, the ears, the feet, they will be cool to the touch because they are not getting enough blood flow,” he said, adding that the very first sign may be feed refusal and weight loss.

In severe cases, ergotism results in the sloughing off of ears, tails and hooves and can eventually result in death.

“And because vessel constriction can happen anywhere throughout the animal’s body, it can happen to the uterus too… there is less blood flow to the uterus and that could cause problems to the unborn calf, so the unborn calf may not do as well as expected. It can affect the udder as well, so lactation can be affected,” said Tomlinson. “There are different degrees, so it’s hard to give blanket answers, because the symptoms depends on the toxicity and the length of toxicity.”

Most of the affected producers indicated they had, or planned to, sell cattle impacted by ergotism, but only one cattle auction mart in the province indicated it had ergot-affected cattle pass through its facility in recent weeks. One auction mart owner said producers don’t normally disclose a history of ergot toxicity and that it is “buyer beware.”

While limited information on the issue is available, Savoie said it does not appear that cattle with ergotism pose any risk to human consumption.

“Ergot alkaloids are unlikely to transfer from feed into foods of animal origin, so we are talking eggs, meat and milk,” she said. “That being said, from an animal health perspective, the CFIA inspects all animals presented for slaughter at federally registered establishments, so the animal, when it’s going for slaughter, must meet the requirements of the meat inspection act and regulation from an animal health perspective.”

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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