Grass Tetany: Causes,Treatment and Prevention
Spring is officially here in Wyoming. Despite the relief the changing weather brings, especially after this winter, all ranchers know each season comes with its own set of challenges.
With calving behind us or finishing up for most beef producers, many are likely preparing to turn out onto range or other forms of pasture if they haven’t already done so. This means cattle are coming off of hay and dormant forage after a long winter and grazing fresh spring growth.
As exciting as this is, there are a few important factors to be aware of. One issue we see in cattle grazing spring grass is a condition known as grass tetany.
Grass tetany, known technically as hypermagnesia tetany, may also be called wheat pasture poisoning or grass staggers.
Grass tetany is a metabolic disorder caused by low blood magnesium (Mg) due to low levels in the diet and/or inadequate absorption.
Mg is critical for nerve impulses and muscle control. This is why we see affected animals staggering, twitching and collapsing. Tetany is caused by livestock grazing lush, vegetative grasses which haven’t yet accumulated sufficient Mg or have high levels of potassium (K), which interferes with Mg absorption.
Grass tetany is often seen in cattle, but it can also affect horses and sheep.
Older cows with nursing calves are at the highest risk for grass tetany. They are most vulnerable two to three months post-calving when lactation peaks.
Producing milk is extremely demanding of the cow, as milk requires significant amounts of Mg and calcium (Ca). However, growing cattle can also suffer from grass tetany, as Mg is also critical for bone development. Cattle cannot store Mg long-term like other minerals, so they must consume it regularly.
Several cool-season forages are more likely to cause grass tetany, especially in irrigated meadows.
Small grains, such as wheat, oats, barley, rye and triticale are frequent culprits. Other grasses such as ryegrass and bromes and range forages like crested wheatgrass can also lead to grass tetany when K content is too high and/or Mg too low during periods of rapid growth.
Although tetany is far more common in the spring, it can also be seen in the fall when cool season grasses are once again sending up fresh growth.
Prevention is the best treatment for grass tetany.
Ideally, lactating cows should not be turned out onto vegetative pasture until grass is at least four to six inches tall, allowing Mg to accumulate. It is best to avoid grazing pastures overgrazed the year before, especially with mature cows.
Fertilizing with ammonia at high rates has been linked with increased grass tetany, as this leads to rapid growth, and ammonia can interfere with Mg absorption. Soil sampling helps determine the minimal required fertilizer without endangering cattle.
The most important aspect of avoiding tetany is ensuring the animal receives enough Mg via feed or supplementation. Not all ranches can afford to delay spring turn-out to wait for grass to mature, so supplements can be a great way to keep Mg levels sufficient.
There are numerous options for supplementing Mg, including high-Mg lick tubs, mineral blocks or other free-choice mineral mixes. Magnesium oxide can be bitter and unpalatable to cattle, so premixed supplements including salt or molasses are a good option to ensure intake.
Pregnant cows need roughly 0.12 percent Mg on a dry matter basis, whereas lactating cows need 0.2 percent Mg. If a supplement contains 10 to 12 percent Mg, and the cow consumes the expected two to four ounces of mineral supplement, this will provide roughly one-half of the average cow’s daily needs.
If possible, supplementation should start at least one month before being turned out onto grass. Including legumes such as alfalfa in the diet by interseeding or feeding hay can also help curtail grass tetany, as legumes typically have good Mg content.
Symptoms and treatment
When grass tetany does occur, symptoms can appear rapidly.
Often, cattle are simply found dead, possibly with evidence of struggle, such as pawed-up ground. It can be easy to mistake for nitrate poisoning or other causes.
If a producer suspects a cow has tetany, it is possible to treat with an intravenous Mg-Ca dextrose solution. This must be done soon after symptoms arise, so it is best to have this on hand for quick use.
If a cow does recover, she will be more likely to develop tetany again, so be sure to move her to better pasture if possible and provide Mg supplement.
Though tough to treat, grass tetany can be relatively straightforward to prevent in a herd by understanding the cause, knowing when and where cattle are most vulnerable and taking the right steps before and during placement on fresh spring pasture.
Those interested can check out University of Wyoming (UW) Extension’s “Grass Tetany: UW Taming Toxic Plants” on YouTube by visiting youtu.be/EsNGNwXvMHs.
Dagan Montgomery is a University of Wyoming Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension educator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.