CORVALLIS - Quick assistance by experts in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University has helped preserve a $350 million West Coast agricultural export industry and give Oregon's grass seed growers a place to profitably sell $50 million of leftover straw from their seed crops.
The crisis - which has been addressed for the moment but is still not totally resolved - arose recently when inaccurate reports appeared in a Japanese newspaper about supposed health risks to Japanese cattle eating imported straw, some of which contained small levels of fungal "endophytes."
These endophytes had been originally encouraged in some grass seed varieties, due to their ability to increase the drought and insect resistance of turf grasses. But in high levels they can also cause serious health problems for cattle, including a debilitating neurologic disease called ryegrass "staggers" and a crippling circulatory disease called fescue foot.
Rumors in Japan that the imported straw from the Pacific Northwest might be hurting cattle and a lack of understanding of the endophyte situation caused a near halt in normal export patterns during March and April, experts say, until OSU veterinary experts quickly upgraded a straw testing program to assure importers that Oregon straw was safe for their cattle to eat. Most exports are now at normal levels.
"We have programs in place now to help educate straw buyers in our Japanese markets and guarantee the safety of our product," said Morrie Craig, an OSU professor of veterinary medicine. "But there's a lot of educational work to be done and the situation is still somewhat up in the air."
As recently as mid-May, officials in the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture were still threatening to ban straw imports with any trace of endophyte contamination. In reality, it's the level of endophytes, not their mere presence, that can be a concern for the health of cattle. Small amounts can be tolerated, and the key to managing endophyte toxicity in feed is to use such straw as one part of a varied diet.
OSU has already dramatically increased its ability to do assays of straw for endophyte toxicity, is studying the nature of this problem in cattle, is continuing to improve its assays and eventually hopes to move beyond prevention for this problem to developing an actual cure.
A major federal grant is being sought for that purpose, Craig said, and Oregon farmers have also been very supportive.
"At one meeting recently in Salem, we were explaining to the group about our need for more research and lab equipment," Craig said. "Apparently the university had been of sufficient help to them that they wanted to do what they could, so they passed a hat. Individual farmers were contributing $2,000 or $3,000 each, and we left the meeting with $70,000 in new support for our science program."
"Their generosity almost moved me to tears," he said.
The capability to export straw has ramifications far beyond just selling that product, Craig said. It's also critical to the health of the Oregon grass seed industry, which has to have some way to get rid of excess straw now that open field burning has been so severely curtailed.
"Grass seed growers told me that the same straw which used to be burned, causing smoke and other environmental problems, is now a $50 million product helping to produce food around the world," Craig said. "Oregon now produces about half of the world's grass seed and it's the number two agricultural commodity in the state."
And elsewhere in the nation, problems with endophyte toxicity in grass are still paramount. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1997 the American cattle industry lost about $1 billion from the reduced cattle weights, deaths and reproductive problems caused by endophyte-infected grasses. Much of that is in the southeastern U.S. where many cattle have to be grazed on pastures with endophyte levels that exceed allowable thresholds.
Consumer education and more careful straw testing for endophyte levels can solve the initial problem for West Coast farmers and exporters, Craig said. But the serious concerns with endophyte toxicity which still remain have prompted the university to focus on the unsolved problem - finding an outright cure for the toxicity caused by these endophytes and the alkaloids they produce.
That may well be possible, scientists believe.
In recent years, OSU's College of Veterinary Medicine has developed one of the world's leading programs in the study of anaerobic microbes - bacteria that do not require oxygen to live and have the unusual capability to degrade a number of different toxic compounds.
They discovered, for instance, that certain types of these microbes in the rumen of sheep given them protection against the toxic effects of tansy ragwort, an invasive weed that can poison cattle and horses and once caused millions of dollars a year in losses to Oregon ranchers. Research is now close to providing a commercially-available product that can be given to cattle to prevent tansy ragwort toxicity.
"The work with tansy sets the stage for what we now will try to achieve with the endophyte problem," Craig said. "It's possible we can identify the anaerobic microbes in other animals that help them break down these toxic alkaloids, and then create a product to protect cattle."