TALL FESCUE TOXICITY IN GOATS
Tall Fescue is an extremely hardy perennial that is insect and drought resistant, shade tolerant, and stays green year around. Soil conservationists and urban dwellers love Tall Fescue because it grows anywhere and requires minimal care. Sounds too good to be true for goats, right? 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. Under drought conditions, Tall Fescue continues to grow in pastures where other species have died.
Pregnancy-related problems in goats eating Tall Fescue are similar to those of other species. Problems include:
1) Prolonged gestation. Does passing their kidding due dates by ten days or 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 in some does.
7) Kids are too large, probably because of prolonged gestation, requiring producer intervention to deliver them alive.
Goats eating Tall Fescue can 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 can 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. Tip: Kelp (dried seaweed) fed free choice can help lower body temperature by as much as one-half degree Fahrenheit.
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.
Because Tall Fescue is unpalatable, goats usually won't eat it unless they have nothing else from which to choose. 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. These two conditions do not lessen the toxicity of the plant. The plant is still quite toxic to goats but it is more palatable under these circumstances.
There are some strains of Fescue which are endophyte-free (uninfected with the toxic fungus). However, these strains of Fescue are not hardy and are easily killed by weather extremes. Endophyte-free fescue is also easily crowded out by the hardier toxic fescue. Producers have found that planting the endophyte-free fescue is not cost effective or successful in the long run.
If you must live with Tall Fescue, keep the pastures cut short in order to prevent seed formation, as the seeds are where the toxic fungus lives and is consumed by 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 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 with Vitamin E (prescription BoSe) is available in injectable form for goats from veterinarians. Do not use MuSe on goats; it is for horses and is too strong.
Until recently, human intervention in kidding difficulties has been the only effective action. I learned this year from Don Chenoweth, a goat raiser in Illinois, that his vet prescribed Equidone Gel (Domperidone 2.75 grams) for his pregnant does with Tall Fescue Toxicity. Made by Dechra Veterinary Products, Equidone Gel is used in horses, and his vet postulated that it might work with goats. He was right. Dosing does in the last 30 days of their pregnancy with one cc per day orally, this Illinois man's goats kidded normally without problems associated with Tall Fescue Toxicity. At his vet's recommendation, he continued daily dosing for 10 days after birthing to facilitate milk let-down. The active ingredient in Equidone Gel functions as a D2 dopamine receptor antagonist, blocking the fescue alkaloids at the cellular level. Use with goats is off-label. I am not vet and have no experience with this condition or this product although I have been raising goats since 1990. I am providing this information so you can consult your goat veterinarian (if you are fortunate enough to have one in your area). Equidone Gel comes in a 25 cc tube and is a prescription.
Suzanne W. Gasparotto, Onion Creek Ranch, Texas 5/4/17
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