Fungus spotted on some Vermont farms

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(Host) Rainy, humid weather earlier this summer created perfect conditions for a fungus to develop in some grains and grasses.

Now, livestock eating some of those plants run the risk of getting sick.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) The fungus is known as "ergot" and it’s been spotted on farms in several parts of the state.

The fungus appears only if grains or grasses are allowed to flower, or go to seed.

Ergot shows up as hard, dark-colored masses in the flowering stalk.

Animals that eat the dark kernels can get sick.

Heather Darby is an agronomist with the University of Vermont Extension Service.

She says the fungus can cause swelling in an animal’s extremities because the disease restricts blood flow.

(Darby) "And then it sort of causes gangrene-like symptoms. So that’s what we’ve seen in Vermont. And essentially if you take the animals off of the feed they should recover if the amount they’ve ingested isn’t too much."

(Sneyd) Most farmers cut their hay or turn livestock into pastures before grasses go to seed, so the problem would be eliminated.

But, for various reasons, that doesn’t always happen.

So agriculture officials say animals and their feed need to be monitored. Tim Schmalz is a plant pathologist with the Agriculture Agency.

(Schmalz) "More important is probably to be aware of the symptoms of ergotism in your livestock and if you suspect it then to get a veterinarian to take a look at the animals."

(Sneyd) There haven’t been a lot of reports of ergot in Vermont.

The Extension Service has heard of maybe 20 animals that have become infected. And the Agriculture Agency hasn’t logged any reports.

But that may be because farmers don’t recognize ergot. They’ve seen the fungus in Vermont before, but it’s much more common in the Midwest than it is in New England. So officials are urging farmers to be careful with their hay crops.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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