Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What We Know About the Mysterious Cattle Deaths in Central Texas

Jeff Heimsath/ StateImpact Texas

A man herds cattle at the West Auction in the winter of 2012.

“There was nothing we could do.”

It’s a phrase that rancher Jerry Abel returns to often when talking about the the day that his cattle dropped dead on his ranch. Listening to him talk about it, one is struck by the sense of powerlessness he felt watching the animals succumb.

Abel raises cattle for rodeo events, and it was after a roping exercise last May that he set his cows to pasture.

“The field adjacent to their pen, it wasn’t really good enough because of the drought for haying,” Abel told StateImpact Texas. “But there was quite a bit of grass on there. So we decided we could just turn the cattle out on it so they could graze some.”

It was about two hours later that the cows started to bellow. Abel and his trainer rushed back to see what was the matter.

“There were some already dead and the rest of them were on the ground, in convulsions and obviously dying. And there was really nothing we could do. Out of the 18 that had been there 15 of them died,” he said.

The shock of watching the cows die gave way to a new surprise when researchers determined what had killed them.

The cattle died after eating the fresh growth in the pasture. Prussic acid, a compound much like cyanide, had formed in the grass. At first, both USDA scientists and Texas Agrilife Extension researchers couldn’t believe what they had found.

Initially, researchers told Abel that his animals were poisoned by the hay they had been eating.

“They called back and said, ‘No, it was prussic acid in the Tifton,’” He said.

Grass, It’s What Beef Has for Dinner

Tifton 85 is the hybrid Bermuda grass that Abel grew to feed his cattle. It hit the market in the early nineties, and quickly became popular for its nutritional value and resistance to drought. It’s now planted throughout the South.  But by all accounts this is the first time it’s turned deadly, said Larry Redmon, State Forage Specialist for Texas Agrilife Services at Texas A&M

“There’s been literally millions of head of livestock raised on that grass on millions of acres, so it’s very unlikely that we would see that happen again,” Redmon said.

Redmon has been studying Tifton 85 for years. He promoted its use in the 1990s, and is one of the lead researchers looking into the incident in Elgin.

Since the cattle deaths attracted media attention, A&M has put out a press release calling the deaths an “isolated incident.” Tired, hungry cows ate extremely new-growth grass that had just been fertilized. The circumstances, somehow, lead to their deaths.

“I haven’t had hardly any phone calls or hardly any emails relative to the press release or the email that went out.” Redmon told StaeImpact Texas. “I’ve had very few questions from county agents. So I think if there’s any concern, I think the news media made a big concern out of it.”

Looking for Answers

Photo by Mose Buchele

Brent Johnson is a rancher in Elgin, He says ranchers using Tifton 85 want to know how the cattle died on Jerry Abels ranch.

In fact, people in the ranching communities of Central Texas are talking about it.

On a recent afternoon in Bastrop County, Elgin Rancher Brent Johnson was picking up a horse at a veterinary clinic. He says when he first heard the news from neighbors, he didn’t believe it was true.

He doesn’t use Tifton 85, but if he did, he says, he’d want to know the reason the grass turned deadly.

“Apparently it killed these cattle in a matter of minutes,” said Johnson.

Rancher Jerry Abel also reports heightened concerns among his neighbors.  And news of the deaths has reached as far north as Nebraska, where Joey Jones works as a grass feeding consultant. It’s a profession that brings him in regular contact with ranchers.

“I just talked with one yesterday, he’s about to seed a pasture and he was thinking Tifton 85 and now he’s not thinking Tifton 85 because of this one story,” Jones told StateImpact Texas.

“I’d sure want to figure out what causes it. Apparently it killed these cattle in a matter of minutes.” -Brent Johnson, Rancher

Even researcher Larry Redmon, who classifies the deaths as an isolated incident, wrote in an email to agriculture extension agents that there is now “the potential for cattle deaths when grazing Tifton 85.”

That email was sent before the official press release, and includes a list of precautions ranchers should take when grazing cattle on Tifton 85, a list the press release does not include. The difference in tone between the email and the press release has also struck some as jarring. The email, titled “Potential Toxicity Issues with Tifton 85 Bermudagras,” appears to strike a deeper note of concern than the press release, titled “Experts: Texas cattle deaths due to prussic acid ‘isolated incident.’”

It’s a difference Redmon does not see.

“The initial email is completely in agreement with the news release,” he told StateImpact Texas. “The initial email was directed to agency personnel so that they would be able to answer questions that might start coming into their offices.”

A New Victim of the Drought?

Scientists would have a better understanding of whether Tifton could turn deadly again, if they knew exactly what circumstances caused the cattle deaths in Elgin.

One theory is that last year’s historic drought, already the cause of so much suffering among ranchers, was the culprit.

Redmon says that many different types of animal forage can create prussic acid when stressed by drought. It’s never been documented in Tifton 85 before. But, then again, there has never been a drought this severe in Texas since the hybrid strain was created.

“Anything that causes stress can actually exacerbate that and cause the release of prussic acid in the plants,” Redmon said.

But, given the special circumstance linked to the deaths in Elgin (tired roping cattle, new growth grass, drought followed by heavy rain), Redmon believes that recreating the conditions that made the grass poisonous will be “nearly impossible.”

Grass feeding consultant Joey Jones agrees that there may be no further deaths from Tifton 85. But he thinks the incident sheds light on how to better protect livestock from accidental poisoning.

“My hope is that this story wakes people up a little bit to the travesties and risks one takes in mono culture,” said Jones, referring to the practice of seeding a field with only one kind of grass.

If we knew what was going on in our pastures, then this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. And ranchers know they don’t know those things and that’s what scares them.” -Joey Jones, Grass Feeding Consultant

“That’s not how cattle would graze if they were left to their own devices,” Jone added. “You should have a multitude of grasses in your pasture, and when you do you’re never going to run into that circumstance where the cattle get sick from what they’re eating.”

Jones also thinks the story sheds light on how little ranchers really know about their pastureland.

“If we knew what was going on in our pastures, if we knew what the protein levels of our grasses were, then this kind of thing wouldn’t happen,” said Jones. “And ranchers know they don’t know those things, and that’s what scares them.”

That seems to be a lesson learned by Jerry Abel back in Elgin. He says even if what happened in his field doesn’t happen again, people should pay special attention to their cattle when they’re grazing, especially on Tifton 85.

“And we’ll probably be a little more careful than that. Just because we had the actual experience,” Abel said.

Prussic acid has been found in other fields of Tifton 85 since the incident, though no more cattle deaths have been reported.


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