2012-06-28 / Front Page

Elgin Rancher Loses 15 Head of Cattle

Cyanide produced from hybrid grass blamed

Jerry Abel reported this week that he lost 15 of 18 head of cattle recently, after letting them out to pasture in a field that supported a hybrid grass that is popular among Central Texas cattlemen. Tifton 85 was planted by Abel more than 15 years ago and that is the forage he prefers for the Corriente cattle he has on his land and that his trainer uses while training cutting horses.

Approximately three weeks ago, Abel let his cattle out into one section of his 80 acre ranch and within hours he heard them bellowing “like they were birthing a calf.” He ran out to the pasture and found 15 of his cattle on the ground, many of them dead and the others seriously sick and having convulsions.

Preliminary test results from Texas Agrilife showed that the cattle were poisoned with prussic acid, or cyanide. The investigators said some native grasses are known to produce cyanide, especially in drought conditions; however, Tifton 85 is a preferred forage due to many factors, including its tolerance of low water conditions. Tifton 85 was developed more than 20 years ago by Dr. Glen Burton and released in 1991 due to its improved nutritive value, high dry matter yield, and increased drought tolerance.

Mike Organ, Lee and Bastrop County President of the Texas Farm Bureau said, “Tifton 85 is a big leaf, big stemmed grass that has exceptional growth qualities when it gets moisture. Small acreage of this grass can support a large number of cattle, if it gets water.”

Organ went on to say, “The experts’ investigation shows an initial suspicion of cyanide poisoning, but until they have finished their investigation, I wouldn’t recommend that we jump to conclusions. This is an isolated case and the first known incident of such a thing happening with Tifton 85.”

“Coming off the drought that we had the last two years, we’re concerned it was a combination of events that led us to this,” said Dr. Gary Warner, an Elgin veterinarian and cattle specialist.

Some news stories reported that Tifton 85 is a genetically modified grass, and inferred that that’s what you should expect from anything genetically modified. However, the “genetically modified” accusation was quickly recounted as experts from the USDA and Texas A & M clarified the fact that Tifton 85 is a hybrid, not a genetically modified product.

Texas Farm Bureau’s President Gene Hall said, “Technically, all plant breeding is genetic modification. Corn itself is a modification of native grasses produced by selective breeding over thousands of years. The much vilified GMO process – also proven techniques – is not a factor in this story, though the reporting seems to be clueless of this.”

He continued, “Here’s the rest of the story. Many grasses, including Johnson grass and the common weed, silver leaf nightshade, will produce cyanide, especially under stress. The hot and dry conditions we have now are very stressful. The African Starr grass, from which the Tifton 85 was produced, can also develop cyanide. No one knows for sure what happened to the cows in Elgin. Genetic modification is a process, not a product, and it has no bearing on the unfortunate dead cows in Elgin.”

Scientists at Texas A&M University and the USDA are still investigating what caused the death of the cows.

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