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September 19, 2014
LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas’ rainy summer has been a boon for Dallisgrass, but with that
bounty comes a higher danger that grazing cattle can be poisoned by a fungus that’s
common to that type of grass, said John Jennings, professor-forage for the University
of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
The ergot fungus, Claviceps paspali, infects the flowers of Dallisgrass and the growing fungus replaces the seed. The
fungus only affects seedheads – the other parts of the plant are nontoxic. Ergot poisoning
occurs to a limited extent each year in Arkansas, but is more prevalent following
summer rainy periods. Dallisgrass is very common in the southern half of Arkansas
and grows in low moist soils.
“Forage quality and palatability are very good for most grazing livestock,” he said.
“However, ergot infection is a cause for concern and requires attention under certain
The most common scenario of ergot poisoning occurs when cattle not previously exposed
to Dallisgrass are turned into a pasture when the grass is at full seedhead.
“Cattle have the habit of selectively grazing seedheads, which leads to a very high
dosage of ergot alkaloids,” Jennings said. “Even on farms where cattle are previously
exposed to dallisgrass, poisoning can occur when animals are hungry and are turned
into a field full of seedheads. Symptoms are much less common in herds exposed to
dallisgrass in mixed grass pastures.”
Ergot poisoning affects the cattle’s nervous system.
“In the very early stages of the disease, the only sign seen may be trembling of various
muscles after exercise,” he said. “As the disease progresses, muscle tremors worsen
so that the animal becomes uncoordinated and may show continuous shaking of the limbs
and nodding of the head.
“When forced to move, the severely affected animal may stagger, walk sideways, and
display a ‘goosestepping’ gait,” Jennings said. This late stage gave rise to the name
Some animals may be found down and unable to stand. Diarrhea may be noted in some
affected animals. Death can occur in severe cases, especially to cattle unused to
There is no cure for ergot poisoning, but removing cows from infected pastures when
symptoms are first noticed usually results in uneventful recovery in three to five
days. Clipping seedheads to prevent animals from grazing them helps prevent the problem
from occurring. Ergot toxicity from dallisgrass hay is very uncommon since the total
intake of hay forage dilutes any ergot contained in the hay.
The fungus turns orange or rust colored from late summer to fall as its spore-like
sclerotia mature in the seedhead. When the weather warms the following summer, the
sclerotia germinate and produce spores that infect dallisgrass seedheads during the
For more information about forages, contact your county extension office, visit www.uaex.uada.edu.
The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons
regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin,
religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any
other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
By Mary HightowerFor the Cooperative Extension ServiceU of A System Division of Agriculture
Media Contact: Mary HightowerDir. of Communication ServicesU of A Division of AgricultureCooperative Extension Service(501) firstname.lastname@example.org