Drought raises potential for cattle to be exposed to plant toxicities


Watch out for plant toxicity during drought conditions.

Watch out for plant toxicity during drought conditions.

In some cases, plants become even more toxic to cattle during a drought, but, more than likely, cattle ingest toxic plants because of the lack of other feedstuffs.

This article examines some of the plants to watch out for and addresses additional factors that contribute to this problem.

Let's start with a list of reasons cattle fall ill to plant toxicity during dry conditions:

For cattle, differentiating between "good" and "bad" plants is a learned behavior. Consequently, toxicity is more likely to occur in young animals and those moved to a new location. Droughts often contribute to increased weed infestation of pastures, hay and crop fields, allowing greater access to these toxic plants. Cattle may be penned in corrals or drawn to low-lying areas — two more possible trouble spots. Cattle in poor body condition may have problems detoxifying plants.

For all these reasons, a grazing-management and supplemental-feeding plan are essential. Veterinarians and producers should be familiar with plants in their area that are toxic to cattle. The following discussion covers some of the plants and situations to watch out for in drought conditions. Keep in mind: There might be plants in some regions not covered in this report.

The nitrate, prussic-acid threat

Stressed plants accumulate nitrates and prussic acid (cyanide) more readily. Drought stress can cause both pasture forages and weeds to accumulate toxic levels of nitrates. Recently fertilized pastures are at higher risk, too. Remember, plants that have accumulated nitrates remain toxic after baling or ensiling. But forages can be tested for nitrates to prevent poisoning.

Prussic acid accumulates most often in sorghums, sudans and Johnson grasses. (These plants can accumulate nitrates, too.) While there isn't a test for prussic acid, it dissipates when plants are baled or ensiled. In other words, harvested forages are safe.

Prevention is critical when it comes to nitrate or prussic-acid poisoning, because mortality rates are high. Cattle with nitrate toxicity suffer from methemoglobinemia (brown blood) and cattle with prussic-acid toxicity have cyanohemoglobinemia (bright-, cherry-red blood). Nitrate and prussic acid both interfere with the oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood, so pregnant cattle surviving these poisonings often abort.

Coffeeweed and sicklepod

Two of the most toxic plants found in croplands and pastures are coffeeweed and sicklepod. Cattle generally will not graze the green plant unless other forages are scarce. They will readily eat the seed pods that dry after a frost. The plant remains toxic when harvested in hay, balage or silage. Coffeeweed and sicklepod toxicity in cattle cause weakness, diarrhea, dark urine and the inability to rise. There is no specific treatment or anecdote. Once animals are down, they rarely recover.

Pigweed or carelessweed is very common in areas where cattle congregate. Cattle will readily eat the young plants, but avoid the older plants unless forced to eat them. Most commonly, pigweed poisoning occurs when the plant is growing in the pen or corral, yet no hay or feed is provided. Redroot pigweed is more toxic than spiny-root pigweed, but is less common. Pigweed can accumulate nitrates, so sudden death is the most common outcome. It also contains oxalates, so renal failure also can occur.

Black nightshade is common in croplands and, like pigweed, grows in high-traffic areas. The green fruit is most toxic, so cattle should not have access to nightshade during this stage, and nightshade remains toxic in harvested forages. Nightshade affects an animal's nervous and gastrointestinal system, causing weakness, depression, diarrhea and muscle trembling among other signs. Bull nettle and horse nettle are in the same plant family as nightshade, but less toxic. Cattle usually avoid these plants unless other forages are not available.

Blue-green algae blooms in ponds also can occur in hot weather. They are most common in ponds with high organic matter, such as ponds where cattle are allowed to wade, or where fertilizer runoff occurs. The blue-green algae accumulate along pond edges, especially in windy conditions, exposing cattle when they drink. Both the live and dead algae are toxic. The toxins can affect the neurologic system, causing convulsions and death, sometimes next to the source. They can affect the liver, causing a delayed syndrome of weight loss and photosensitization (skin peeling in sparsely haired or white-haired areas).

Perilla mint causes acute bovine pulmonary edema and emphysema (ABPE), usually in late summer. It grows in most of the central and eastern United States and is common in partial shade in sparsely wooded areas, and around barns and corrals. There is no treatment, so prevention is critical.

Lantana is a common ornamental plant that spreads readily to pastures from birds carrying seeds. Lantana is highly toxic and causes damage to the liver. Common signs include weight loss and photosensitization.

Cattle with access to wooded areas may eat braken fern. Cattle must eat roughly their body weight over time before toxicity occurs, but may do this in situations where other forage is not available. Braken fern toxicosis causes aplastic anemia. Fever, anemia, hematuria and secondary infections are some of the most common signs.

Once the rains come, watch out for cocklebur and ABPE.

As summer moves into fall, the potential for acorn toxicosis increases. Cattle usually have to eat large amounts to become sick, but those that are in poor body condition and hungry are more likely to do so. Clinical signs include constipation or dark, foul-smelling diarrhea, dark nasal discharge, depression, weakness and weight loss.

Acorns are toxic to the kidneys, so a high creatinine will be noted on blood chemistry. Once the rains come, other plant toxicities may occur. Cocklebur may sprout as waters recede. The two-leaf stage can cause acute liver failure, and if there is little other forage available because of prolonged drought/overgrazing, cattle may eat toxic amounts. Cattle moving from poor forage conditions to immature lush pasture can have ABPE. Slow introduction to lush forages will decrease the potential for problems.

The lack of summer forages and the need for supplemental feeding during a drought can increase the likelihood of feeding "accidents" and toxicities. Producers may be tempted to feed cattle ornamental plant clippings, many of which are highly toxic. Grain overload also is a potential problem if access to concentrate feeds is not controlled. Salt toxicity can occur if hungry cattle are allowed free access to high-salt-containing "hot mixes."

Even though these mixes are meant to limit intake, an initial feeding can be high enough to cause toxicity in starved or salt-deprived cattle. Feeding byproduct feeds, candy, bread, screenings, etc., also may be more common, all of which have the potential to cause problems. Producers may be tempted to feed moldy hay or feed, which can lead to toxicity problems.

Dr. Navarre

Christine Navarre, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM works as an extension veterinarian with Louisiana State University's Departme nt of Veterinary Science.

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