Toxic Grass Kills Texas Cattle

Common grass variety linked to cyanide poisoning
Wikimedia/Andy Wright

Drought conditions in Texas have been reducing cattle stocks, and some ranchers are now getting increasingly antsy after an entire herd of cattle suddenly dropped dead after eating a field of a common breed of grass, which specialists say became full of toxic levels of cyanide.

Jerry Abel has been a rancher since 1977, and has been growing the "Tifton 85" Bermuda grass on his pasture for 15 years. But this summer, when he let his 18 head of cattle loose on the grass, they started eating, then bellowing, then convulsing. Within a few hours, only three were left alive.

Autopsy revealed the cause of death was cyanide poisoning from toxic grass, even though the Tifton 85 is a common form of grass on grazing lands for cattle.

Certain forms of grass are known to pose cyanide threats, especially with new growth. But there’s never been another reported case of this happening with the Bermuda grass, so area ranchers are nervous.

"If cattle are already on pasture, don't worry about it," said Larry Redmon, a specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, to The Huffington Post. "Chances are it's not going to be an issue." But, he said, "I would never say never."

The Department of Agriculture is working to figure out just what happened to turn the common grass toxic, and Redmon said the hazardous buildup could be due to a combination of conditions including drought, new rainfall, and grasshoppers.

While some ranchers are nervous, others are a bit more laid-back about the whole thing.

"Weird things happen," said Jim McAdams, former president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, who has about 40 acres of the grass in question. "It’s just something that we ranchers have lived with for a long time."