Livestock Producers Encouraged to Stay Alert for Dangerous Nitrate Levels in Forages

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Many livestock owners and crop producers are dealing with drought issues which include securing forage for winter feeding and/or salvaging drought damaged crops. Farmers should be aware of the potential for nitrate poisoning with certain crops.

Some warm season plants are more likely to accumulate nitrates than the more common cool season grasses such as fescue, orchardgrass and clovers. The species that are more likely associated with high nitrate potential include drought damaged corn, johnsongrass, sudangrass and pearl millet. Additionally, some warm season weeds such as lambsquarter and pigweed can also accumulate dangerous levels of nitrates under certain conditions.

Conditions that favor the accumulation of nitrates include drought conditions and/or excessive application of nitrogen by commercial fertilizer or animal manure. Even routine amounts of nitrogen can lead to high nitrate levels in forage if the plants are stunted due to drought conditions. These plants will often take up the applied nitrogen but when their growth is retarded in dry weather the compounds can be more concentrated in the standing plant material and may lead to abortions or death of animals that consume the grass, hay or silage.

Producers can submit samples of fresh forage, hay or silage to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for nitrate testing and the analysis is completely free. If a more detailed analysis for protein, energy, minerals and fiber content is desired there is a $10 fee. The form can be found by searching with the key words “ncda forage analysis” or by contacting your local cooperative extension center.

If producers discover they have forage that contains elevated levels of nitrates they can access a helpful bulletin that describes the condition and how to manage it on the NCSU Drought Website and is entitled “Nitrate Management in Beef Cattle.”  This publication may be helpful to producers that find they have forage that is marginal in nitrates as cattle and other ruminants can become “adapted” to certain amounts of nitrates over time if these forages are introduced slowly and carefully. The bulletin contains a range of nitrate levels that are considered safe, dangerous or lethal so producers can better understand how to manage the forage resources they might have on hand.

Dry conditions have resulted in a forage shortage in our area and many producers are scrambling to secure enough stored feed to meet the needs of their herds. Be aware of the potential for nitrate toxicity in certain forages and educate yourself on how to deal with the threat. For more information or assistance contact your local center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

This article was written by Jeff Carpenter, Livestock Extension Agent