Mycotoxin risk likely to be high in some Alberta feed grains

Last year’s growing conditions created a perfect breeding ground for some dangerous mycotoxins, including DON

Variable weather conditions across the Prairies could cause problems with mycotoxins in feed this winter.

Max Hawkins.
photo: Supplied

“The No. 1 most influencing factor in mycotoxins is weather,” said Max Hawkins of Alltech’s mycotoxin management team.

“Weather determines which moulds we’re going to have, the amount of those moulds, and those moulds determine the variety of mycotoxin.”

Mycotoxins are a toxic byproduct of moulds and fungi that can create a wide array of health problems in livestock when they ingest contaminated feed, Hawkins said during an Alltech webinar last month. In most cases, mycotoxins will cause some degree of performance loss, but in severe cases, they can significantly reduce feed intake and feed efficiency, cause digestive disturbances, compromise reproductive performance, and even kill the animal.

“We’re concerned about mycotoxins in animal production because of the broad array of animal health and performance challenges it causes,” said Hawkins.

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But livestock producers may not even know they have a problem with mycotoxins, as the symptoms can be both subtle and varied.

“In order to control or mitigate a mycotoxin situation, we have to identify what that mycotoxin risk is in our own particular situation,” he said.

“You can have quite a variation within a small geographic area, so each individual producer really needs to get an idea of what their own individual risk is.”

Mycotoxin risk

And the first thing to consider is growing conditions on your farm last year, particularly rainfall.

Some moulds, such as fusarium, thrive in wet conditions and moderate temperatures, while others, such as aspergillus, are more prevalent when it’s hot and dry. Extreme weather events such as hailstorms and windstorms create a perfect breeding ground for mycotoxins.

“This year, like many other years where we’re seeing particularly high rates of fusarium mycotoxins such as DON and T2, it’s in areas where we had high incidence of crop damage due to hailstorms, wind, and heavy rain,” said Hawkins.

And because of wet weather later in the season and straight through harvest, livestock producers are likely to see problems with fusarium mycotoxins, including DON (deoxynivalenol, also known as vomitoxin). Crops that were harvested early seem to have little risk, while the later crops — especially corn — could be a bigger concern.

“A lot of the high-risk samples came from where we had excess rainfall that the crop was exposed to late,” he said.

“Essentially what we have is two growing seasons back to back that are both the wettest we’ve seen in 127 years of recorded weather history. So it’s put the crop in those areas into really high stress, and that’s where we get into all sorts of problems.”

Feed testing

Compounding the issue is the number of different mycotoxins that can be found in feed.

In Alltech’s 2019 harvest analysis, the team found an average of 5.25 different mycotoxins per sample, with some samples containing nearly 10 different ones.

“That 5.25 is just a number. It doesn’t indicate how high the mycotoxin levels were, but ultimately, multiple mycotoxins are more challenging to animal production and health than one mycotoxin. So it’s meaningful to overall risk,” said Hawkins.

“What we see here is high risk levels that could certainly cause impact and risk to animal health and performance. If you have one of them, you can manage through it pretty easily, but when you begin to have two or three, it makes it much more challenging.”

But your risk level will depend on your own operation, Hawkins added. Feeding corn this year will come with higher risk, particularly if you’re feeding dairy cattle or swine.

“If you were feeding the average silage sample in Alberta, I would feel pretty good about your chances in 2020,” said Hawkins.

“But this year, with the lack of forages in North America, that corn silage inclusion is going to be much higher, so there may actually be more risk from corn silage than we’ve had in the past few years.”

So livestock producers will need to test their feed ingredients for contamination and get a good handle on the risk level on their own operations.

“The take-home here is that everybody needs to test their own ingredients,” said Hawkins. “It’s important to get that data so we can formulate a risk management program and control the mycotoxins that go into these finished feeds.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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