[Question]: Find enclosed a sample of oats that I harvested with a considerable amount of eastern black nightshade berries. Is it all right to feed this to my beef cows?
[Answer]: If your desire is to have no risk of negative health impacts on your livestock, then do not feed the contaminated oats to your beef cows. However, we can draw on past experience with feed samples contaminated with eastern black nightshade to provide some indication of potential risks.
Plant species from the nightshade family often contain glycoalkaloids, which are bitter tasting and poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, causing gastric irritation and symptoms that range from “tummy rumbling” to vomiting and diarrhea. Many of you have seen green parts of a potato, or a potato chip with a tinge of green. When a potato has green skin, it contains the glycoalkaloid “solanine.” Many of us though, don’t toss out a potato with green skin but rather cut the green part off and use the rest. After all, a University of Nebraska, Lincoln report indicated that one would have to consume one per cent of our body weight in green potatoes to get sick (1), which, for many of us, would represent much more than one pound of green potatoes.
In 2015 an oat sample was sent to me that contained dried-up eastern black nightshade berries at one per cent of total sample weight (Figure 1 below and Figure 2 at top). Previous reports have indicated that dried berries of black nightshade do not contain toxic alkaloids while the immature green berries of eastern black nightshade may contain small amounts of toxic alkaloids (2), so presumably the risk of feeding this sample would be low given that the berries in the sample were mature and dried. Nonetheless, the feed sample was sent to a diagnostic lab to see if any toxic alkaloids could be found.
While awaiting results from a diagnostic lab, the farmer decided to feed a small amount of the contaminated oats to his cattle. He reported back that “the calves’ manure became loose and some bloody, so (I) backed off the amount fed and have slowly increased the amount but not to the levels I would normally feed with and have seen no side effects.”
When the lab report came in, it had tested positive for toxic alkaloids, which would seem consistent with the side effects observed by the farmer. Once again, this illustrates that “the dose makes the poison” but the challenge with poisonous plants contaminating animal feed is that there is little information available as to what dose will cause problems. Therefore, it’s best to be cautious. Either compost the oats so that you have a chance at killing the viability of the weed seeds or clean the seed as best you can to remove the berries and re-purpose as cover crop seed, keeping a keen eye on any germinating nightshade plants so that you can remove them when young.
(1) O’Connor, A. (2007, July 3). The Claim: Green Potatoes Are Poisonous. New York Times.