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The risks of Ergot to horses

Understanding the risks of Ergot

08 September 2023

Ergot is a fungus that contains poisonous alkaloids. It mostly grows on rye and is usually associated with rye in Eastern Europe where it can contaminate bread. It is being seen increasingly here, and it is not confined to cereal grains - it can also infect grass, especially ryegrass.

The ergot fungus appears as a little outgrowth, looking a bit like a mouse dropping, on the ear or seed head of the infected plant. Some years it is more of a problem than others and is most likely after a cold winter followed by wet weather then hotter conditions.

The ergot alkaloids are used commercially to make LSD, migraine medication, pergolide (Prascend) and drugs used in obstetrics to control post-partum bleeding, for instance. Pergolide was withdrawn from in the U.K. for Parkinson's patients due to the side effects, including a 700% increased risk of heart defects.

In horses, it triggers a wide range of signs which include muscle tremors, lack of appetite, incoordination and weakness. In brood mares, it can trigger abortion, late and difficult foaling, retained afterbirth and reduced or even absent milk. In some cases, it limits peripheral circulation, leading to gangrene in the extremities, such as ears, tail, feet. Early signs will be reduced blood flow and coolness in the affected areas but the affected animal will be hotter elsewhere.

There is no antidote, so treatment is more support of the horse with good nursing, removal of affected forage, good nutrition and ensuring good hydration, for instance. Recovery is possible if caught early enough. If you suspect ergot poisoning, contact your vet.

Avoiding ergot poisoning involves avoiding those forages and straws that are more likely to be affected. Topping to prevent grasses from going to seed, especially if it is known to be an issue in the locality, and using certified seed that is endophyte free (does not have the spores that will cause the infection). Monocultures of susceptible species will increase the potential amount of ergot, so mixed swards will be safer.

If you are looking for grass seed our Natural Grazing Mix is a ryegrass free blend of high fibre species. The mix is also suitable for hay cropping.

Simple System grass pellets are low risk for ergot. We work closely with our trusted growers to offer natural feeds of the highest quality. Our accreditation assures you that every step of our supply chain has been risk assessed and all products are fully traceable from field to bag. Care is taken every step of the way from seed, to harvest, to bag.

For more information on our feeds or for free advice on which products will be suitable for your horse, please contact our Feed Line on 01728 604 008, email info@simplesystem.co.uk or complete our online form here.

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Premium high fibre quick-soaking Timothy grass for horses and ponies unable to eat hay.

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Ryegrass free blend of high fibre grass species. A balance of hardy, creeping & drought resistant grasses, for complete sowing & paddock repair. Also suitable for hay cropping.

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