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Medicinal preparations, such as ergotamine, are made from ergot; are useful in contracting the uterine muscles, particularly after delivery to prevent hemorrhage, and have also been used for menstrual difficulties. This is a guest post written by Karin Schmid, Beef Production Specialist with the Alberta Beef Producers. The cool, wet conditions across parts of the country this spring, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan, may have created the perfect environment for ergot.  While virtually unheard of a decade or two ago, veterinarians and researchers agree that problems with ergot are clearly on the rise in the prairies.
Ergot is a plant disease caused by the Claviceps purpurea fungus.  Although traditionally associated with rye and triticale, ergot also affects wheat, barley, and a variety of grasses including bromegrass, quackgrass, wheatgrass, orchardgrass, wild rye, and bluegrasses. The ergot bodies (sclerotia) are hard, vary in size, and are black or dark purple with a white to grey-coloured interior.  Ergot bodies are formed in place of grain kernels, so ergot development is evident during heading, and more specifically during kernel formation.
Low levels of ergot in feed can also cause spontaneous abortion, and dramatically reduce milk production by suppressing prolactin, the main hormone responsible for controlling milk production.  It is unclear if lactating animals are more susceptible, or if the effect is due to increased feed consumption during lactation.
Young or pregnant cattle are especially susceptible to ergotism.  Do not feed ergot contaminated feedstuffs to young or pregnant animals. Ergot has also been found in silage, and is very difficult to detect without testing because the ergot bodies are not readily apparent at the soft dough stage, when harvest occurs.
Prairie Diagnostic Services (PDS) in Saskatoon has been accepting samples of grain and silage to test for ergot and other mycotoxins since Sept.
Animals on pasture are generally safe from ergot poisoning, as they graze the plants before they reach the heading out stage.  However, if you are planning to graze pasture with grasses that are already headed out, checking for ergot is a good idea.
Crop rotation away from cereals to broadleaf crops for one or two years can reduce ergot infections in crops, as ergot bodies only survive in the soil for one year, and broadleaf plants are not susceptible.  Mowing or grazing neighboring headlands and roadways before they flower can prevent bordering grasslands from becoming hosts to ergot infections, which can then spread to crops.
If you suspect ergot in a feed source, do not feed it until it has been tested or diluted appropriately. If you suspect ergotism, contact your veterinarian immediately, and remove animals from the suspected contaminated feed as soon as possible.
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This entry was posted in Animal Health and Welfare, Feed Grains and Feed Efficiency and tagged Barley, Cattle Nutrition, Feed Rations, Feed Testing, Karin Schmid, Lameness by Beef Research. Dan Undersander fills us in on what to look for before feeding hay to your animals this winter. If using Firefox and having trouble playing Podcast audio, please update browser to Version 22 or higher. Dan Undersander: There is a fungus called ergot, e-r-g-o-t, that grows actually on grasses. Dan Undersander: What it does is it grows on the plant, and then it makes a mat of Massilia, or fungal fibers, that actually looks like…well I’m going to say mouse turd, and it grows right in the seed head. Dan Undersander: Well the main thing I would say would be to contact your county agent, and have him look at the sample.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Dan Undersander, Department of Agronomy, University of Wisconsin Extension and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin, and I am Sevie Kenyon. Two new beef specialists from the University of Minnesota will be featured at the upcoming Driftless Region Beef Conference, Jan. Eric Mousel will be speaking during the general session on grazing cover crops, facilitate the evening ‘bull pen’ producer panel, and during a breakout session, he will discuss longevity of beef heifers.
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Ergot, a truly fascinating fungus, is a medical story that reaches all around the world and back in time to the beginning of agriculture 13,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. The fungus grows on small grains like rye, oats and wheat, growing naturally in damp, cool growing seasons. With the development of chemistry, the alkaloids of ergot became the basis of medicines, saving lives not taking them. The ergot alkaloids are mycotoxins produced by several species of fungi in the genus Claviceps.
The ethanol distillation process also has the potential to concentrate ergot alkaloids.  While ethanol plants do have ergot limits, ensure that dried distiller’s grains (DDGS) made from wheat are ergot free. Dynamic lots such as conveyor belts should involve multiple samples across the entire cross section of the moving stream.
Barry Blakley, John McKinnon, and Eugene Janzen for their assistance while researching this article, and Dr.
Ergot contains alkaloids, it does affect then all of our animals that would eat the grass—sheep, cattle, horses. If, and that’s where we run into problems because often times for horses, and even cattle over winter, this could be their primary feed stuff, and then they could run into problems. And then we do have a plant pathology lab here on the University of Madison campus that can look at the sample and tell if it is these ergot massilia masses. Ergotism, a disease caused from ingesting ergot, was a blight on humanity causing death by gangrene and by attacking the neurological system.
Related stories include witch trials, LSD, the CIA, Midwifery and the saving of countless lives on the battlefields of WWII. This disease may cause strange hallucinations, the feeling of itchy and burning skin, gangrene, loss of hands and feet, and even death.
Claviceps purpurea may infect the reproductive structures of cereal plants during cool, wet weather, with rye being the main economic host.

Chinese Medicinal Herbs, compiled by Shih-Chen Li, Georgetown Press, San Francisco, California, 1973. This was an especially bad year for the fungus, and then also because it was wet; in some regions we were late getting into the fields to harvest them so we had more grass heads than usual.
Secondly, if you do have seed heads, in brome, timothy, orchard grass, tall fescue, blue grass hay that you might be buying, any of them; look to see if you have what looks like little mouse turds in that hay. As examples, the Assyrians, 600-500 BC, used ergot as a biological weapon by contaminating their enemies’ wells with ergot, and in 945 CE, 40,000 died in Paris of the “Plague of Fire” caused by ergotism. Specialized fungal structures known as sclerotia (the ergots) develop from these reproductive structures and may be harvested with the grain [Figure 7]. And if you have those then that ergot is present, and then you should be very cautious in feeding that to your animals.
There are four main groups of ergot alkaloids: the clavines, the lysergic acids, the lysergic acid amides, and the ergopeptides.
If the sclerotia are processed into flour, high levels of contamination with ergot alkaloids may result. If you buy hay without the seed heads, if you get it from here- south you’ve got less issue with it this year, but from here- north any grass hay that is bought with seed heads should be checked carefully.
If it’s severe enough it’ll, it’s cumulative, so three or four weeks in, and feeding this, you might see the ears fall off, those sorts of things. Anthony's fire reportedly experienced symptoms that suggested ergot poisoning such as burning skin, insects crawling under their skin, and the loss of hands and feet [Figure 6]. In the 1690s, ergot alkaloids may have been the cause of symptoms associated with witchraft surrounding the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. And particularly again it becomes worse in cold weather because that’s when the blood flow is more important. Ergotamine is one of the building blocks of the psychoactive drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Common pasture grasses may be contaminated with alkaloids similar to those produced by ergot fungi, but these fungi belong to different genera and do not produce sclerotia. Today, ergot alkaloids are being exploited for medicinal purposes including the treatment of migraines, the induction of child birth, and the control of post-partum bleeding.

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