TALL FESCUE TOXICITY IN GOATS
Tall Fescue is an extremely hardy perennial that is both insect and drought resistant; the plant is also shade tolerant and stays green year around. Soil conservationists and urban dwellers love Tall Fescue because it grows anywhere and requires minimal care. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?
The problem: Tall Fescue is toxic to goats, particularly pregnant goats, as well as sheep, cattle, and horses.
Tall Fescue, whether it is growing in the pasture or baled into hay, contains an alkaloid toxin that is trapped between the cells in the seeds of the plant. This endophytic (inside the plant) fungus is not detectable visually. Fungicides are not effective against it, and if Tall Fescue is baled into hay, the toxin remains active and dangerous. Endophyte-infected Tall Fescue hay will remain toxic for two years or more. If fertilized, the plant can accumulate nitrates, making nitrate poisoning an additional danger.
Most of the research into health problems caused by animals eating Tall Fescue, especially those that are pregnancy-related, has been done on horses, cattle, and sheep. However, goat producers are learning first-hand of Tall Fescue's negative effects on pregnant goats. Recent years' prolonged arid conditions nationwide have highlighted the drought resistance of Tall Fescue, as it has continued growing in pastures where other plant species have died.
Goat producers are learning that pregnancy-related problems in goats eating Tall Fescue are remarkably similar to those of other species. Problems include:
1) Does passing their kidding due dates by as much as ten days or even more.
2) Does with little or no milk. Some does never develop an udder.
3) Contractions so weak that the doe requires human assistance in delivering her kids.
4) Placentas so thick that the kids cannot get out unless the producer tears it open.
5) Unusually thick umbilical cords that are tough to break.
6) No cervical dilation at all in some does.
7) Kids are too large . . . probably because of prolonged gestation. . .. also requiring producer intervention to deliver them alive.
Goats eating Tall Fescue often have weight gains reduced by more than 50%. Rough coats are typical. Poor blood circulation causes a condition called dry gangrene in which parts of the hooves and tail rot and fall off. Body temperatures tend to be slightly higher than normal, resulting in animals spending much time standing around in the shade when they should be out foraging.
Tall Fescue is a perennial plant that grows across the United States, from the West Coast to the East Coast, as far south as Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, and northward into Canada. It is three-to-four feet in height, grows in clumps, and has medium-wide leaves that are rough-ribbed. It has no rootstocks (rhizomes). The heads on Tall Fescue are open and many branched. Producers can view pictures of Tall Fescue by going onto the Internet to any Search Engine and typing in the words "Tall Fescue."
Because Tall Fescue is so unpalatable, goats won't eat it unless they have nothing else from which to choose. Recent droughts have brought forth just such conditions, bringing the toxic effects of goats eating Tall Fescue to the attention of producers. There are two conditions under which goats will eat toxic Tall Fescue. Early spring growth that is very short may readily be eaten by goats. After a hard frost, goats may consume toxic Tall Fescue, presumably because the frost "sweetens" its taste. Recognize that these two conditions do not lessen the toxicity of the plant; indeed, the plant is still quite toxic to goats but it is more palatable under these circumstances.
Note: They are some strains of Fescue which are endophyte-free (uninfected with the toxic fungus). Unfortunately, these strains of Fescue are not hardy and are easily killed by weather extremes. Contact your County Extension Agent to find out what strains of Fescue, if any, grow in your area.
Human intervention in kidding difficulties is the only therapy that is effective. No medications exist to prevent the problems or to eliminate them once they have occurred. The only prevention is to avoid feeding Tall Fescue to goats. However, some areas are so infested with Tall Fescue that the only remedial practice available is to try to oversow the plant with legumes, such as red or white clover. This may dilute the toxic effect on goats, but it will not eliminate it altogether. It is also advisable to keep Tall Fescue pastures cut short in order to prevent seed formation, as the seeds are where the toxic fungus lives and is passed on to goats. The plant is so tough that it is impractical to try to kill it off. There is some evidence that increasing copper levels in cattle has helped fight Tall Fescue toxicity, but such studies have not been done yet on goats. It appears that the fungus interferes with the absorption of copper and selenium. Infected Tall Fescue is high in protein, but it is an unusable protein. Researchers believe that the fungus, which is what makes the plant so hardy, tends to bind copper, zinc, selenium, and cobalt. Do not underestimate the connection between Tall Fescue toxicity and selenium and/or copper deficiencies in goats. Horse breeders sometimes give pregnant mares a selenium injection 30 days prior to the projected due date to help make the foaling difficulties more manageable. Giving a selenium injection to the newborn shortly after birth has been helpful to foals in some cases. Selenium is available in injection form for goats from veterinarians; the product is called Bo-Se.
This author is grateful to Robin Cotten, SawTree Ridge Farm, Atoka, Tennessee, and Connie Reynolds, Autumn Farm, Ravenswood, West Virginia, for sharing their unpleasant experiences with Tall Fescue. Both ladies are subscribers to ChevonTalk, my no-cost Internet meat goat discussion group.
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