Got Ergot? Some Vermont Cows Do
Local Matters: Agriculture & Animals
Fungus turns up in local livestock, feed
ALBURGH — In humans, it causes paranoia, hallucinations, tics, twitches and spasms. The fungus known as ergot, which has been linked to bad behavior from the French Revolution to the Salem witch trials, has turned up in livestock feed across northern Vermont.
The fungus was first discovered in Alburgh earlier this month after University of Vermont Extension Service Agronomist Heather Darby noticed foot swelling on one of her cows. “At first we thought she sprained her ankle and then we saw her skin was sloughing off, and that’s when we knew it was something different,” Darby says. After inspecting the rest of her herd, Darby noticed about a third of the cows showed telltale signs of ergot poisoning. A vet confirmed her suspicions.
Cases of ergot poisoning have also been reported in Morrisville, Highgate and other parts of the Northeast Kingdom, Darby said. While rarely fatal, the condition can make livestock ill after repeated exposure. In rare cases, poisoned livestock lose limbs. “This year the conditions were just right. It’s amazing how much is out there,” Darby says.
This year’s wet spring allowed ergot to grow on grain supplies. The good news, Darby says, is that animals quickly recover once they stop eating the tainted feed. “The big thing is for farmers to be aware of the symptoms,” says Tim Schmalz, a plant pathologist at the state Agriculture Agency. He said farmers should watch out for gangrene-like symptoms of tissue deterioration in tails, teats, hooves and lower extremities.
Livestock exposed to grasses that have gone to seed and hay cut late in the season have higher risks of contracting ergot poisoning, Darby explains, adding that dried hay can still contain the ergot fungus. It is rare today for humans to develop ergot poisoning since raw feed is rarely part of a person’s diet, and the fungus does not affect a cow’s milk. Farmers who suspect ergot poisoning should contact a veterinarian. For more information on the virus or to get your feed tested, call 524-6501.