March 2014
From the State Vet's Office

Moldy Sweet Potatoes

And Other Things That Go Bump in the Night

For a long time in the early part of my married life and when the kids were small, we lived in my grandparents’ old house. If you know how an old house has its own personality and tends to settle and make noises, you will understand I do not get too excited at things that go bump in the night. However, if you have followed my columns over the past few years (actually this column ends my 10th year with the Cooperative Farming News for which I am very grateful for having the opportunity to get our messages out through their venue), you may have got the idea I stay right on the edge of being paranoid about agro-terrorism or an outbreak of a foreign animal disease.

I don’t like to think of myself as paranoid, but simply hyper-vigilant. That is, I believe, what you pay me for. It is not that I believe there is a terrorist hiding behind every clump of Johnson grass or every time a farmer loses multiple animals that we are at the beginning of a foreign animal disease outbreak. It is my philosophy, though, to encourage producers to report multiple losses of livestock or poultry. The commercial poultry losses are generally reported up through the company to me. I also encourage producers to report other conditions that could indicate the introduction, accidentally or intentionally, of a foreign animal disease. These include large numbers of animals becoming sick, neurological diseases, multiple abortions (Even a single abortion could be something to be concerned about, although it is often difficult to get a diagnosis on the cause of a single abortion. It is important, however, to rule out certain diseases.), hemorrhagic disease (that’s where the animals have hemorrhagic diarrhea or are hemorrhaging from various orifices), sores and blisters around the mouth and feet, and, as I mentioned before, multiple deaths.

There are various ways these disease syndromes can be reported and I am comfortable with any way the information gets to me. First, you can report to your local veterinarian. They will get the information to me and we will make a decision about what type of response the problem requires. You can report the problem to one of our field veterinary medical officers or animal health technicians. You can report these losses to one of our diagnostic laboratories at Auburn, Boaz, Elba or Hanceville. Or, you can report directly to me. I would hope that over the years most of you have entered my phone number into your cell phones or have it committed to memory. If you have not done either of those, here is my office phone number: 334-240-7253.

I suppose I should get back to the point of this article and the discussion of multiple deaths in livestock. For those of you who do not have first-hand knowledge of some of the causes of multiple deaths, hopefully you will be able to learn from the misfortunes of others. And while I believe first-hand experience is a great educator, sometimes it comes with a huge price tag.

Recently, one of our field veterinary medical officers called to make me aware of a farmer who had found all of his small herd of cows dead. When I say small herd, I am talking about eight cows. But, when you consider the price even cull cows are bringing now, losing a single cow is a cause for concern. Anyway, it turned out, when our veterinarian looked into the situation, moldy sweet potato poisoning was the cause of death in these cattle. Notice, it is not the sweet potatoes that caused the problem. (I will say I love sweet potatoes. But, I am not a cow and I am not going to eat moldy sweet potatoes.) It is actually a toxin produced by certain molds that like to set up housekeeping on stored sweet potatoes and can be lethal to cattle. Ingestion of the toxin causes pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and severe damage to the bronchial passages. Death can occur in a matter of hours. Usually this will not cause the whole herd to get sick and die, but when you are dealing with a small herd of cattle and the concentration of the toxin is relatively high, it can, and in this case did, wipe out the whole herd.

Several years ago, I was notified that a farmer in south Alabama had lost 51 cows suddenly. That was the case. They were okay and then they were dead. And did I mention this occurred at the beginning of a weekend. We had everybody scrambling … me, the investigators, folks at the Auburn lab. It turned out the pasture where the cows resided was in close proximity to a field where phorate, a potent organophosphate insecticide, had been used. A combination of factors such as heavy rain, sandy soil and the fact that phorate is relatively stable in water had contributed to this event. An unusual situation that I am not aware of happening before or since in the state of Alabama; it certainly had us scrambling to make sure we were not dealing with a malicious act or a foreign animal disease event.

We have had a producer lose cattle from nitrate toxicity from water puddling up on an old chicken house pad after the house was destroyed in a tornado. We have had producers lose cattle that find their way into an old storage building, often an old abandoned house where cotton poison was once stored. For some reason cattle are attracted to old poison that has crystallized and become kind of like a salt block. Pastures with old garbage sites from 40-50 years ago have been the cause of people to lose cattle to lead poisoning resulting from old batteries. I have never understood why cows may have been on a pasture for decades and they tend to just eat grass and hang out. Then one day they decide to go see what it would be like to try to eat the lead in an old battery.

I say all of this to make you aware there are things out there that will kill cows and those deaths can be prevented. I would urge you to occasionally walk or drive over your pastures. Sometimes people may dump garbage on the back side of your farm that you may not be aware of unless you make it a point to look. If you decide to feed sweet potatoes, which many people have done successfully over the years, learn the hazards and educate yourself about possible warnings. Discuss these things with your veterinarian or someone with the Extension system. I would rather you learn that way. Otherwise, I could be using your unfortunate experience as the subject of an article somewhere down the road. And, like I said, experience is often a fairly expensive education.

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.