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Watch out for cyanide poisoning.

Cows suffocate. That's what happens when they get too much nitrate or cyanide in what they eat. They can breath, but their bodies can't use the oxygen they take in.

Unusual weather conditions recently have contributed to increased chances for these poisonings. When heavily fertilized plants don't get enough water, nitrates collect.

Cyanide poisoning is more of a danger with wilted plant materials, such as cherry leaves when they fall in autumn. Cyanide poisoning can also occur during dry periods when plants wilt naturally, or when you cut weeds or trees to clear a fence line. During the wilting process, hydrocyanic acid is produced.

Johnson grass, Sudan grass, common sorghum, wild black cherry, chokeberry and arrow grass commonly produce hydrocyanic acid. Other sources include members of the mustard and flax family.

The most dramatic symptom of nitrate or cyanide poisoning is open-mouth breathing as cows attempt to take in enough oxygen through their mouths. In cases of nitrate poisoning, the red blood cells can no longer pick up oxygen in the lungs; in cyanide poisoning, the red cells can't release the oxygen they've picked up. In either case, the cow suffocates.

Beware of wilted plants

Watch out for wilted plants in you pastures and be aware when weather conditions have increased the potential for both types of poisoning. To help determine if feeds and pastures contain a dangerous level of these poisons, have samples tested at local laboratories.

The diphenylamine test for nitrates is easy to run. Crops that may need testing include green chop, silage, fodder, corn, sorghum, oats, Sudan, wheat, rye and barley. If a drop of the clear diphenylamine liquid placed on any of these plants immediately turns deep navy blue, the nitrate level is dangerous.

The prussic acid strip for cyanide testing is bright yellow. Plant material to be tested is placed in the bottom of a test tube with chloroform. The yellow strip is caught at the top by the stopper and suspended in the tube away from the glass. When the test tube is heated in warm water, a gas that turns the yellow strip red will be released if acid levels are high.

Either of these poisons can reach dangerous levels one day and be safe a few days later. You need to check plants in different parts of a field to be safe.

Animals eating grain can adjust to a higher level of nitrates than animals that aren't fed on grain. But dairy cows confined to a feed lot aren't exempt from poisoning. The danger to them is not as great as to beef cattle on pasture unless a feed change is abrupt. Forage with fairly high levels of nitrates can be blended into dairy rations gradually over a period of four to five days and the cows' systems will adjust, because nitrates are not as absolutely fatal as cyanides. With nitrates, it's more a question of level per day.

Dairy and beef cows can suffer from abortions caused by either type of poisoning, but the culprit is more often nitrates.

With both nitrate and cyanide poisoning, prevention is truly easier than the cure. Treatment is intravenous and often complicated, requiring veterinary assistance. My advice is to test your forage crops and look out for wilted plants and failing cherry leaves.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:in cattle
Author:Haenlein, George F.W.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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