Beef/Cattle Extension Program
What is ergot poisoning?
This question comes from Phillips
County. Source: North Dakota State University; Marcia
McMullen, Extension Plant Pathologist Charles Stoltenow,
Ergot is toxic to animals. Animals consume ergot by
eating the sclerotia present in contaminated
feed. All domestic animals are susceptible, including
birds. Cattle seem to be the most susceptible.
Two well known forms of ergotism exist in animals,
an acute form characterized by convulsions,
and a chronic form characterized by gangrene. A third
form of ergotism is characterized by hyperthermia (increased
body temperature) in cattle, and a fourth form is characterized
by agalactia (no milk) and lack of mammary gland development,
prolonged gestations, and early foal deaths in mares
fed heavily contaminated feed. Which form of ergotism
is manifested depends on the type of ergot consumed
and the ratio of major toxic alkaloids present in the
ergot: ergotamine, ergotoxine, and ergometrine. Claviceps
purpurea, the common cause of ergot in North Dakota,
is usually associated with gangrenous ergotism. Claviceps
paspali, an ergot of Paspalum spp. of plants, is most
commonly associated with central nervous derangement.
Paspalum is a water grass distributed in pastures in
southern states, but is not commonly
found in North Dakota.
The responses of animals consuming ergot are usually
quite variable and are dependent on
variations in alkaloid content, frequency of ingesting
ergot, quantity of ergot ingested, climatic conditions
under which ergot grew, the species of ergot involved,
and the influence of other impurities in the feed such
as histamine and acetylcholine.
Animal Clinical Symptoms
Symptoms of convulsive ergotism include hyperexcitability,
belligerence, ataxia or staggering,
lying down, convulsions and backward arching of the
back. Symptoms of gangrenous ergotism involve the extremities
of the animal including the nose, ears, tail, and limbs
. Early signs usually start in the hind limbs (Figure
5). Lameness may appear from two to six weeks after
first ingesting ergot. There may be pain, stamping of
the feet, and coolness of the affected areas. If ergot
consumption continues, sensation to pain is lost in
the affected areas and an indented line appears between
normal tissue and gangrenous tissue. This gangrenous
tissue is called `dry gangrene.' Eventually all tissue
below this line will slough. Besides the limbs, other
extremities involved can include the tail and ears.
The tips and distal areas of the extremities will also
Early signs of gangrenous ergotism usually
start in the hind limbs.
Animals fed large amounts of ergot over time lose portions
of their hooves, ears (Figure 6), tails, combs, and
wattles. Spontaneous abortion and loss of milk has occurred
in cows and sows fed even small amounts of ergot. Ergoty
feed should not be fed to breeding females. Animals
fed large amounts of ergot over time lose portions of
their ears or other extremeties.
Diagnosis of Ergot Poisoning
A diagnosis of ergot poisoning is based on finding
the sclerotia in the feed or pasture and whether the
animals are exhibiting symptoms of ergotism. Extraction
and detection of ergot alkaloids also may be done if
ground feed is suspect.
Treatment of Ergot Poisoning
The only treatment for erotism is to remove the ergot-contaminated
feed or remove the animals from the contaminated pasture.
If nervous signs are present, call your veterinarian
for medical advice and supplemental therapy such as
pain control. If dry gangrene is present, the affected
portion will be sloughed. There is nothing to reverse
this process. If secondary infections or open wounds
are present, call your veterinarian for appropriate
Prevention and Control of Ergot Poisoning
Prevention is based on feeding feed and forage that
are free of ergot. For pastures, graze the infected
fields before seed heads begin to flower. The ergot
is contained in the ovary of the flower. Commercially
prepared feeds will rarely contain ergot. Non-commercial
grain (home grown) should be screened prior to feeding
(and planting to prevent contamination of future crops).
Special care should be taken in feeding screenings.
If feeding ergoty grain is unavoidable, the amount of
sclerotia should be reduced to an amount less than 0.1%
(by weight) of the feed through mixing with `clean'
grain. Again, ergoty feed should not be fed to breeding