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Toxic grass behind mysterious cattle deaths

by Noel Brennan

AXTELL - The recent deaths of 15 cows in Elgin, Texas has Central Texas ranchers taking a closer look at what they're feeding their cows.

Rancher John Denton trusts his Tifton 85 bermudagrass. He's been using the hybrid grass for 12 years on his property near Axtell, just northeast of Waco.

"Lots of people got it," said Denton. "They like it and they plant more of it. In fact, I just got through sprigging 40 more acres of it this year," he added.  

Denton owns about 450 dairy cows and 150 Black Angus cows.  All of Denton's Angus cows graze on Tifton 85 because it's palatable, easy to digest and is high in protein. The grass is so commonly used for grazing, Denton was astonished to hear about the cattle deaths in Elgin.

"All of the steers and heifers were on the ground and some were already dead and others were in convulsion," cattle rancher Jerry Abel described to KEYE-TV in Austin.

Abel let his herd of Corriente calves graze on a lush field of Tifton 85 bermudagrass a few weeks ago. Within minutes, 15 of 18 calves were dead after being poisoned by prussic acid, or cyanide.

"The presumptive conclusion is that those animals - without some sort of evidence to the contrary - those animals actually died as a result of prussic acid poisoning," explained forage specialist, Dr. Larry Redmon of the Texas AgriLife Extension.

Redmon said prussic acid poisoning isn't uncommon, but it is in Tifton 85. Other types of grass like Johnson and Sudan grasses are known to emit cyanide under extreme conditions.

"Usually it's some sort of stress event," Redmon explained. "It can be drought, it can be frost or some other things that can cause this compound to release the cyanide in the forage."

However, the cattle deaths in Elgin were the first ever connected to Tifton 85, and Redmon stressed it was an isolated incident.

"Those cattle had just gotten through being roped and exercised with horses, and they were turned into this field that had not been previously grazed," Redmon added.

Still, what happened in Elgin was enough to get ranchers like John Denton to take another look at his own grass.

"For me, there's going to be more data on it," said Denton, "but right now I'm going to stick with Tifton 85.'

Denton's hungry herd of cattle probably won't mind either.

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