Damp summer raises risk of ergot grain disease, warns SRUC

SRUC expert Dr Basil Lowman warned of the ergot risk. Picture: Contributed
SRUC expert Dr Basil Lowman warned of the ergot risk. Picture: Contributed
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Livestock farmers in the Borders and Lothians have been warned of an increased risk of ergot in locally grown grain.

The SRUC warned that higher levels of this fungal disease of grain crops – which can be toxic when eaten by animals or humans – were encountered by crop clinics earlier in the year.

The ergot, which can grow to replace peas of grain in a crop in favourable conditions – such as the damp summer which Scotland experienced this year – is harvested along with the crop.

Dr Basil Lowman of the college’s SAC consulting division said that grain processed for human consumption always underwent rigorous screening procedures – and any crop containing more than 0.01 grams of ergot per kilogram of grain was banned from the food chain by UK law.

However, he said that crops being exclusively fed to livestock, particularly home-grown crops, were unlikely to be as rigorously checked and he added that there had already been reports of raised ergot levels on some farms in the Lothians and Borders.

Heather Stevenson from SAC Consulting Veterinary Services said that ergot poisoning was seen more frequently in cattle than in sheep.

“The most common form occurs where contaminated grain is fed over a long period,” she said.

“Initially animals may be seen to be lame and have mild diarrhoea but later the toxins restrict the blood flow to the animal’s extremities, like the lower legs, tail and ears, which become gangrenous and, given time, would die and slough off.”

She concluded: “There is no treatment for ergot poisoning.”

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The college also stressed that ergots were extremely poisonous to humans and said that farmers or staff handling affected grain should always wear gloves and a mask and be extremely careful when processing grain.

Lowman said that while the best advice was not to feed infected grain, farmers could assess the level of contamination in the grain in terms of ergot pods per kg of grain. “This can be most simply done by taking a dozen 1 kg grain samples from all over the heap, spreading these out over a sheet of newspaper and counting the number of ergots,” he suggested.

He said that if levels were low, and the farmer judged it safe to feed, such grain should only feed to growing/finishing cattle, never to breeding cows or any sheep.

He added that such grain should be fed whole rather than processed. “Monitor stock closely and at the first signs of any of the symptoms stop feeding contaminated grain immediately,” he warned.

• Farmers will have the opportunity to speak to experts on this and other issues when SAC Consulting hosts the first Borders/Lothians Farm Advisory Service (FAS) event tomorrow.

The on-farm meeting which takes place at Lylestane Farm, Lauder at 10.45 am, will cover a whole range of practical topics.

The free event, which is financed by the Scottish Government, will cover a host of local issues, including forward planning for 2017 and updates on new regulatory requirements, said Donald Dunbar, senior SAC consultant at St Boswells.

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