Livestock are curious, ignorant creatures. Often out on pasture for extended periods of time, they can get into all manner of trouble. Toxic plants, insecticides, herbicides and other poisons can make animals ill or even kill them. Knowing what to look for and how to manage your pasture is very important when it comes to the wellbeing of your herd.
Plants Can Cause Problems
There are numerous plants that can cause a problem for livestock and the plants that are toxic varies with each livestock species. Red Maple is dangerous for horses  while yew trimmings can be toxic for cattle. The best way to tackle this issue is to become familiar with the poisonous plants common to your area and then walk your pasture regularly to check for them. Your county extension agent can be an excellent source in helping you recognize poisonous plants, and may even be willing to walk your field with you and point them out. You may also need to post “no feeding” signs if you have neighbors or passers-by who enjoy offering trimmings to your animals. Explaining the dangers of poisonous plants to your friends and neighbors can go a long way to protecting your livestock.
Unfortunately, poisonous plant species are not the only thing that you need to be concerned about. Plants during drought are often made up of immature leaves which harbor higher levels (2 to 25 percent more) of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) found in stems which can be toxic when consumed. This not only affects pastures where animals graze, but also fields where hay is harvested. If you live in a fairly drought-free region, but purchase hay from drought areas, your animals could be affected. “Forages that might carry a higher risk of prussic acid toxicity include Johnson grass, birdsfoot trefoil, sudangrass and hybrids, sorghum and hybrids, flax, white clover, and Indian grass” reports Lisa Munniksma  for HobbyFarms.Com
Lead poisoning can be another problem in certain pastures. Toxic lead can be found in some soils, especially those near mining, smelting and refining activities. Animals ingest the lead by eating plants that have absorbed lead or swallowing contaminated soil. Having your soil tested for lead levels is important if you live in an area of concern. (Lead can also be found in old peeling paint, so if you have outbuildings that animals are around, be sure to check if the paint is lead-based as livestock will sometimes lick old paint and poison themselves. Lead is also present in batteries and metal products. Don’t junk these items in your pasture or anywhere animals have access too.)
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Moldy hay can be another issue for grazing animals. Often times, pastured animals need supplemental hay during the winter (or drought) months. If improperly harvested and stored, hay can mold, causing not only diminished nutritive value but also the potential for animal poisoning. Hay and silage will need to be inspected for mold before feeding. A musty smell and heat present in hay bales can signal the presence of mold. When an animal ingests moldy feed, they take in mycotoxins. Mycotoxin toxicity can cause a range of problems in livestock including colic (in horses), abortion, improper weight gain, and even death. Practice proper hay harvesting and storage and be picky when it comes to purchasing hay from other sources.
Pest Control Can Cause Problems
There are a number of pests (plant and animal) that find their way onto the farm and into pastures. Insecticides, herbicides and rodent poisons are the farmer’s attempt to deal with keeping them under control. However, these can pose danger to livestock if care is not taken.
Common practice for dealing with bug problems used to be spraying insecticides, but with growing environmental concerns, other practices are being looked into as well. A more natural approach to managing the pests on your farm is using integrated-pest-management (IPM) techniques. This approach “uses preventative, surveillance and corrective measures to reduce the number of pests without high pesticide use” writes Jessica Walliser for HobbyFarms.com. The belief is that if a pest can never establish itself in an area, then it won’t become a problem. Some IPM techniques include row-covers, pheromone traps, encouraging good bugs to stay, and mulching to minimize disease and weeds. When plants and equipment are properly cared for, the incidences of pest infestation is lowered significantly. If these practices fail, there are organic options available as well. It’s also important to keep any insecticides (organic or not) in labeled containers in locked bins so livestock can’t accidentally get into them.
Some of the same thinking should be incorporated into managing problem plants. Herbicides can kill poisonous plants, but they can also poison livestock if ingested. Incorporating rotational grazing, cover crops, weed barriers and crop-field weeding into your farm schedule can go a long way towards managing problem plants without herbicidal use. In the event that you do need to use an herbicide, follow grazing restrictions on the label. If you aren’t sure what practices to follow, don’t hesitate to call the manufacturer. Your local livestock veterinary office may also have some guidelines when it comes to herbicide use.
While probably not a major concern for animals solely kept in pastures, mouse and rat poisons can pose a potential threat in barns and outbuildings. Most rodent poisons are made with grains and horses find them irresistible. Only place them where you are sure a horse cannot reach (and remember that horses escape their stalls routinely). An excellent alternative is the addition of a barn cat or two, or a rat terrier. Your horses may enjoy the extra company and you will be dealing with the problem naturally without endangering your animals.
Keeping livestock safe is a major concern for a healthy farm. Being aware of poisons and incorporating certain practices into your farm can go a long way towards keeping your livestock protected and full of life.
What tips do you have for keeping livestock safe? Let us know in the comments section below.