Producers urged to test feed for ergot contamination

Last year’s wet spring has left a potential 
deadly legacy

Ergot-contaminated feed is on the rise and producers need to be testing to avoid poisoning their livestock.

“Last year at this time, we were running 20 to 40 samples a month for ergot — we’ve had days this year where we run 40 samples, and lots of them are high concentration,” said Barry Blakley, a professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon and a supervisor in the college’s Prairie Diagnostic Services laboratory.

“The number of samples have skyrocketed since last year. What we used to do in a month, we do in a week easily. It’s anywhere between a five- and tenfold increase.”

Ergot is more prevalent this year because of last year’s wet spring, with Alberta the most affected province, followed by Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The ergot fungus requires moisture to grow and invades grasses during the flowering stage, destroying the flower and replacing it with an ergot particle known as a sclerota.

Part of the rise in testing is because people are aware that ergot is a problem, and Blakley said that’s a good practice for all livestock producers to follow.

“If there are black particles in the feed, producers should get the feed tested, because it doesn’t take much to affect production,” he said.

Ergot looks like blackened wheat seeds, and can easily contaminate feeds, causing lactation issues, lameness, and weight loss.

Ergot looks like blackened wheat seeds, and can easily contaminate feeds, causing lactation issues, lameness, and weight loss.
photo: Supplied

Ergot appears as a black kernel, the same size as a wheat seed. Horses are the most sensitive to ergot as it affects their milk production, and can cause them to go lame. Sheep, pigs and cattle are also susceptible to ergot poisoning. Their milk production can be reduced or stop altogether, and they can go off feed, and lose weight.

Ergot establishes itself in ditches filled with brome, quack grass, and other grasses, and then spreads into field crops.

“A lot of farmers are complaining that they see the ergot around the outside of the field, and then it slowly invades the field,” said Blakley.

No-till or low-till systems may enhance the spread of ergot. Summerfallowing or tilling grind the ergot fungus into the dirt, where bacteria and bugs break it down. With no till, the fungus stays on top of the ground where it continues to grow.

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Ergot in pasture is not as much of a problem, because animals tend to graze it down before the heads come out.

Screenings are a cheap source of feed, and it’s hard to tell wheat seeds in screenings from ergot.

“Pellets that incorporated screenings last year had a high percentage and concentration of ergot in them,” said Blakley.

Ergot-filled crop can be sorted and cleaned, but dust on the grain can actually contain a bit of the fungus, which can contaminate feed.

“If there are more than five kernels in a litre of grain, that’s too many,” said Blakley.

One of the challenges is that ergot doesn’t grow uniformly, and there can be a lot of variation from bin to bin.

Drier conditions in 2015 could reduce the amount of ergot on the Prairies. Municipalities can also prevent ergot from invading ditches and fields by mowing. Once a field is invaded, a producer will normally have to apply fungicides. Another option is to rotate away from grasses and start growing other crops like canola or corn.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for the Glacier FarmMedia publication, the Alberta Farmer Express, since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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