Drought-damaged corn silage with high nitrates can kill cattle

Farmers should use care before feeding drought-damaged corn or soybeans plants to cattle, University Extension specialists warn.

This summer’s prolonged drought in Missouri has caused stricken corn plants to accumulate nitrates that can kill grazing livestock quickly.

Ralph Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist, said the university is receiving reports of cattle dying from nitrate poisoning.

Nitrogen is essential for hay and grain crops. Nitrates are in plants all the time, creating normal growth. Nitrogen picked up by the plant roots from the soil moves up into the plant. Nitrates are normally converted into amino acids, which are the building blocks for plant proteins. Eventually the pant stores energy in seed heads as protein.

But a lack of moisture when the plant is growing stops the flow of nitrates up the plant and eventual conversion of nitrates into protein.

When harmful nitrates build up in a plant instead of being converted to beneficial proteins, that’s when trouble occurs.

Feeding chopped drought-damaged corn plants or silage to cattle that has not been tested for nitrates can be extremely dangerous. “If you feed a load of high-nitrate chopped corn to you cattle in the morning, by noon you can be out of the cattle business. The cows will put their four feet into the air,” he said.

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