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Ergot fescue fungus can cause big problems in cattle

University of Missouri Extension Published on 21 June 2011

Summer often brings the appearance of ergot in fescue seed heads. Ergot also shows up in several cereal grains and other grasses.

Ergot is visible to the naked eye, unlike the endophyte fungus that is found in the fescue plant and is seen only with a microscope.

“Both produce ergot alkaloids, like ergovaline, which cause big problems in cattle that consume the material,” said Eldon Cole, a livestock specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

Symptoms of ergot consumption noted in cattle include high body temperatures, salivation, frequent urination, classic heat stress symptoms, loss of tail switch, loss of hooves, rough hair coat, poor gains and reproductive performance.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint whether the source of the ergot alkaloid is ergot or the toxic endophyte in fescue. Each is capable of producing the alkaloids,” said Cole.

Ergot, which resembles mouse droppings, gets into the cattle’s digestive system when they strip fescue seed heads as the plant matures.

“It’s unlikely that all cattle in a herd find them palatable so even though a lot of the plants contain the ergot, only a few of the cattle may show symptoms due to limited intake,” said Cole.

During fescue seed harvest, a look in the seed pile in the combine or at the seed buying station gives an idea of the infestation amount.

“I’m not aware of any cultural practice that can reduce ergot intake other than clipping pastures early to prevent seed stripping by the cattle,” said Cole.

Cole says most of the hard dark ergot material will shatter to the ground and not cause problems to cattle.  FG

—University of Missouri Extension press release, June 2011

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