While farmers in western Manitoba are experiencing the sickening sight of fields they did manage to plant this spring drown in a sea of water, farmers across the rest of the province are confronting a scary sea of red.
Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives' weekly map showing the risk of fusarium head blight disease outbreaks in cereal crops has gone from a somewhat-concerning moderately green to an alarming bright red over the past 10 days.
Spray planes and field units are hard at work applying fungicides in a bid to protect the winter and spring-seeded cereals, which are most vulnerable when it's warm and moist just as the crops are flowering.
There is more than yield at stake. Fusarium and its evil cousin, ergot, produce toxins that can cause serious illness in humans and livestock if they find their way into food and feed.
The grain supply chain has become well-acquainted with the fusarium risk and how to manage it since the disease started to surface with increased regularity in the early 1990s. There are now fungicides available that can suppress the disease and ways of cleaning harvested grain so the shrunken "tombstone" kernels are pushed out. There are set limits for the levels of fusarium-damaged kernels in a sample, which keeps it at below harmful levels in the food and feed chain.
However, ergot, the toxins from which were known in the Middle Ages as St. Anthony's fire because of its affect on people who ate contaminated rye bread, has surfaced in Western Canada at surprising levels recently.
Toxicologists, veterinarians and feed-industry representatives addressing a recent symposium at the University of Saskatchewan said they've realized ergot-contaminated feed causes health problems for livestock at much lower levels than previously thought.
Plus, there is much more of it showing up in cereal and forage crops, partly because of changes in farming practices --farmers are tilling less and leaving more crop residue on their fields -- and partly because weather patterns have shifted toward cool, moist springs. And fusarium, once limited to the eastern Prairie, has started to move west, while pockets of ergot are now showing up in Manitoba.
The symptoms of ergot toxicity, such as animals showing poor rates of gain and unusual degrees of frostbite, are easily mistaken for other ailments or even poor management. Producers may not realize they are slowly poisoning their stock until it is too late.
Dr. Eugene Janzen, assistant dean of clinical practice at the University of Calgary, said even he was initially perplexed in the winter of 2013 when he observed Alberta feedlot cattle in so much distress it was clear many would have to be euthanized on site.
The cattle had high rates of severe lameness that didn't respond to standard treatment for foot rot. The animals were indeed suffering from frostbite, but it wasn't because they were poorly sheltered from the winter cold. They had ergot poisoning, which in cattle causes vasoconstriction, or poor blood flow to their extremities.
Ergot-affected animals develop "dry gangrene" in their hooves, which can easily be confused with foot rot.
The situation has the manufactured-feed industry scrambling to keep it out of feed mills. If contaminated grain is turned into pellets, it not only makes the ergot invisible, it concentrates the toxins by a factor of two.
There's been a big push to raise awareness about the potential hazard. Researchers are trying to establish lower, safer guidelines and better methods of monitoring.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or email: email@example.com.