The wet weather, elevated temperature and high humidity are ideal environmental conditions for ergot growth in Tennessee pastures.

Cattle experiencing ergot poisoning appear to be “hot” and will seek shade or water to stand in. Other symptoms include rapid breathing, sloughing of the tail and switches and tips of the ears and reduced performance. The poisons constrict the blood vessels, increasing respiration, raising body temperature and limiting blood flow to the extremities.

These symptoms are similar to fescue toxicity. Grasses that are candidates for infection include common grasses such as Dallas and fescue. Ergot in the plant looks like “rat” droppings and are easily seen in the seed heads.

Cattle producers are encouraged to check their pastures for ergot. A sure indication of ergot being present is if your “khakis” become black and dusty as you walk through the pasture: ergot is on the forage.

What can be done to reduce the effects of ergot toxicity? Probably the first step would be to remove cattle from infected fields. One big item is to “bush hog” the field and hope that it will be followed by a good rain. An even more basic practice is to carry out pasture management practices that reduce the incidence of heads in the forage. Close grazing or clipping would also aid in improving the quality of the forage.

Hay should be checked for ergot infestation. Diluting the cattle rations with other feeds will reduce the ergot effect. This would be difficult to determine and it is not recommended due to the unknown level of infestation. Hay that has been stored for a year or more will still have more than half of the original infestation.