CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Department of Agriculture is investigating the death of approximately 20 head of cattle in southern West Virginia, and the current prime suspect is toxin contained in reed canarygrass.
“We have ruled out any infectious diseases,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Gus R. Douglass. “Although we are not positive canarygrass is to blame, we want to alert producers and ask them to report any unusual deaths in their herds to their local veterinarian.”
The telltale symptom in these deaths is partial paralysis of rear limbs, according to state veterinarian Gary Kinder, although some animals died suddenly without obvious symptoms.
Animal age, nutrition and general health may also be factors, he noted.
Producers who note these symptoms in their cattle or sheep herds should contact their veterinarian.
Veterinarians with questions may contact WVDA’s Animal Health Division at 304-558-2214.
Post-mortem testing performed at Virginia Tech University as part of WVDA’s investigation indicates the animals died from poisoning from reed canarygrass.
Although it is a hardy, common species found worldwide — and generally not considered problematic for livestock — potentially dangerous levels of alkaloid toxins can accumulate in the grass during drought conditions and during regrowth after grazing or mowing.
There currently is no way to test for the toxin levels in feed or grass, and Kinder advised farmers to exclude animals from stands of canarygrass, which tends to grow best in damp areas.
Information on identifying reed canarygrass is available at www.wvagriculture.org or by calling WVDA’s Plant Industries Division at 304-558-2212.
What you can do
Kinder also said producers should increase the cobalt concentration in free choice mineral supplements to approximately 250 ppm. Cobalt will not reverse symptoms in affected animals, but is thought to help prevent absorption of the toxins.
Sheep are also susceptible to reed canarygrass poisoning, and there is no known treatment once animals become symptomatic.
WVDA is continuing its investigation in cooperation with Virginia Tech, West Virginia University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.