Summer cooks up ergot trouble for Arkansas cattle

“Like sands through the hourglass, so go the days of our lives.” Soap opera fans will readily recognize the opening to a popular daytime drama on television. But, this could also be applied to the cyclical events agricultural producers encounter each year.

One of those cyclical events is the summertime development of an ergot fungus in the seedheads of dallisgrass and other small grains used for forage. The ergot fungus produces honeydew that eventually turns gray or black When consumed by cattle in sufficient quantities, it can produce serious and deadly reactions.

Reactions to ergot-infested seedheads depend upon the type of ergot ingested. One type produces symptoms of nervousness and constriction of blood vessels to the extremities that can lead to gangrene.

The more common symptom of ergot-infested dallisgrass seedheads is called paspalum staggers. Paspalum staggers causes animals to tremble, become aggressive, stagger around and frequently fall down. In severe cases, death can result.

There is no cure for ergot poisoning. Luckily, cattle can recover if they are removed from ergot-infested pastures. If ergot-free pastures are not available, feeding hay or grains without ergot will work. Since affected cattle stumble around and fall frequently, they should be carefully watched if in pastures with severe slopes or ponds because they may not be able to stand and could drown in a pond.

Preventing dallisgrass from going to seed is one management tool to prevent ergot poisoning. Grazing heavily or clipping seedheads if the pasture gets ahead of the cattle can accomplish this.

The ergot fungus is very persistent. Ergot-infected seedheads baled in harvested forage are a concern and present the potential for poisoning. Cattle are attracted to the ergot-infected seedheads. Even after clipping, cattle may pick up seedheads from the ground.

Even with the problems associated with dallisgrass, it is a forage whose potential has probably not been fully tapped. Nutritionally, it ranks ahead of bermudagrass and is adapted to heavier soils.

Another plant to watch for in many pastures is perilla mint. Perilla mint is usually found in shady areas where cattle like to rest after grazing. When adequate grazing is available, animals avoid perilla mint. However, when forage supplies are short, the plant becomes attractive.

Perilla mint is recognized by a purplish color on the underside of the leaf and the square cross section of the stem. Perilla mint poisoning is characterized by the development of pulmonary edema and emphysema shortly after consumption. No effective treatment for perilla mint poisoning is known, and cattle that survive 24 hours usually recover.

Herbicides commonly used on pastures will control perilla mint before it becomes a problem.