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Test drought-raised grasses, forages, CRP for nitrates before feeding
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Test drought-raised grasses, forages, CRP for nitrates before feeding

Shorthorn cow in field (copy)

A Shorthorn dairy cow contentedly grazes on Steve and Pat Kling's pasture.

Observation and testing feed and water are paramount to keeping livestock safe during a severe drought. Nitrate toxicity can be a big concern.

The University of Minnesota Beef Team talked about this in a recent Facebook livestream video available at

They recommend getting advanced tests for nitrates before feeding forages, grass, cereals, and even Conservation Reserve Program plants.

“You are going to have to get a better (nitrate analysis) package…. You’re going to want to go more into your NIR’s and your wet chemistries to get those numbers…. These are going to cost a little bit more money, but you’re going to get a lot more information,” said Stacey Caughey, Extension BQA Program associate.

Dr. Joe Armstrong, DVM, added that, “When you walk in, you need to make it very clear that you need nitrate testing. And that is going to be a little more expensive, but definitely worth the peace of mind.”

Plants may contain high levels of nitrogen when growing in a drought. That’s a function of plants being dormant for a fair amount of time, followed by a rain event, said Troy Salzer, St. Louis County Extension educator.

“During that dormant period, the plant actually accumulates those nitrates in the root system, and then it is moved up into the plant as the plant begins to regrow,” he said. “That is the time when we have to be most cautious about the aspects of nitrate poisoning.”

In general, the nitrate concentration goes down as the plant continues to grow, and in essence, dilutes the nitrate in the plant, he said. Cereal grains are high nitrate accumulators, Salzer added.

Being proactive in testing is the best way to keep livestock safe.

Signs of nitrate toxicity may occur shortly after eating, said Dana Adams, Stearns, Benton, and Morrison counties Extension educator.

“You might see a change in mucous membranes. Bright pink eye lids and mouths turn more to a dusky, darker color,” Adams said. “Cattle may be staggering. They are breathing hard to get that oxygen to their tissues.”

She added that during a visit to DHIA on July 14, the manager said the lab had received about 15 forage samples testing for nitrates already that week.

“People are aware and are taking steps,” she said. “It is highly encouraged to know what your animals are exposed to and being able to plan proactively rather than reactively.”

Before fencing failed crops and turning out livestock, the Beef Team recommends getting the stalks and any grain tested. For more information and instructions on this, visit:

Minnesota Farm Guide Weekly Update

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