Ergot is a fungus that infects the heads of grasses and small grains. When hot, humid weather follows cool, wet weather, conditions are favorable for the development of ergot. This fungus produces small black “ergot bodies” that look similar to mouse droppings. In Missouri it is most often found in tall fescue but has also been seen in other grasses.
Ergot bodies contain an alkaloid that is toxic to many species of livestock including cattle, horses, sheep, goats, llamas and alpacas. Even humans, pigs and dogs consuming infected grain can experience poisoning symptoms. Ergot poisoning produces symptoms similar to those of fescue toxicosis. Animals appear to suffer from heat stress, standing in ponds or shade, rapid breathing, loss of tail switches, abortions, lameness and overall poor production including reduced weight gain and milk production.
If ergot is found in pastures, clip the seedheads to knock them to the ground where livestock cannot ingest them. Inspect the edges of the pasture for the presence of ergot in the heads that remain in the fenceline. If hay has been made from a field with ergot present in the seedheads, check bales for the level of infestation. Mowing and curing of hay reduces the concentration to a certain degree, but at least half of the alkaloids will still be present up to a year later. Craig Roberts, MU Extension state forage specialist, recommends inspecting hay for the presence of ergot. If ergot bodies are found in 1 of 10 seedheads, symptoms will be experienced by livestock. If ergot bodies are found in most of the heads, it could cause serious problems. If ergot is present in the hay, dilute it with other feed.
For more information, contact Valerie Tate, MU Extension field specialist in agronomy at email@example.com or 660-895-5123. University of Missouri Extension programs are open to all.