Drought leads to some cases of toxic hay

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- As drought deepens around the country, farmers in Montana hoping to salvage damaged grain fields for hay are being warned to be careful.

State agriculture officials say the hot, dry weather can make some of the remaining plants toxic to cattle by raising nitrate levels.

Already this year, many of the field and laboratory tests showed elevated nitrate levels in small grains -- barley and wheat, for example -- that producers grew and now intend to hay.

For producers already hit hard by drought, it's just one more thing to deal with.

"I'm at the point of, 'What's next?' I think we all are," farmer Bill Icenoggle said.


Under normal growing conditions, nitrogen is taken from the soil by plants as nitrate, which the plants convert to protein. But when plants are stressed -- exposed to extreme heat or cold, for example -- nitrate is accumulated faster than it can be converted.

That leads to levels that can sicken cattle, cause them to abort their calves or even kill them, agriculture officials say.

Concern with the potential for nitrate poisoning, though hardly new, has intensified in recent years on Montana farms and ranches because of drought conditions.

Icenoggle's cattle and grain farm in north-central Montana has gotten little rain since spring. If that doesn't change soon, he's worried he'll end up in the same situation as last year -- with tons of high-nitrate oat hay he can't feed his cattle without mixing it with healthier forage.

Producers often can blend elevated-nitrate hay with other forage, making it safe to feed cattle. In extreme cases, farmers have had to plow under their fields or burn hay with dangerous nitrate levels.

"Testing before you cut can save you from making a big mistake," said Darren Crawford, the Glacier County agent. "If you burn it, what a waste. Not only of hay but also of money and time spent haying and stacking."

High nitrate has been reported in cereal grains such as barley, oats and wheat, as well as sudangrass and, sometimes, alfalfa, said Dennis Cash, the extension forage crop specialist at Montana State University.

The effect on cattle varies with an animal's consumption and its tolerance level, Cash said. Symptoms of nitrate poisoning can set in within hours, even minutes, depending on the amount of forage ingested, officials say. Those symptoms include watery eyes and muscle tremors.


Because the drought is widespread, farmers looking to buy hay are being advised to ask for a nitrate test from sellers.

"In the last couple years, we've had lots of hay come in and we're not always sure of the quality," Cash said. "My number one concern, especially if it is cereal or sudangrass hay, is to request a nitrate test," he said. "If it's hot, it's not worth the money or potential loss of cows or calves."

Requesting a nitrate test is standard business practice for farmer Dean Peterson, who said he'll likely have to buy at least 200 tons of hay this year.

"I thought we were in better shape than last year until that hot spell speeded up the dry-out," Peterson said. "We'll manage. We just have to adapt. We've been adapting for four years now."

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