OSU Extension: Acorn Poisoning a Potential Threat to Cattle, Sheep

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Source: Ohio State University

LANCASTER, Ohio -- The increase in this year’s fall acorn crop means that livestock producers who have oak trees in their pastures need to be on the lookout -- acorns from these trees could cause kidney failure in their animals, particularly in cattle and sheep.

Acorn poisoning can be a significant issue for producers, especially in feeder calves that are more susceptible to developing kidney failure after ingesting acorns, said Stan Smith, an Ohio State University Extension program assistant in agriculture and natural resources. 

OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

In fact, producers with oak trees in their pastures may want to consider moving their herd away from the dropped acorns or consider fencing off larger areas that are covered with acorns, said Smith, who is a beef cattle expert.

“Feeder calves weighing from 400 to 700 pounds are susceptible to kidney failure when they consume acorns,” he said. “This is when they are about to be weaned from mothers and are looking for more to eat because pastures are getting thin, and it seems they’ll eat acorns out of curiosity and hunger.

“Older cows with more mature digestive systems seem to be less susceptible. The potential for acorn poisoning could be a bigger issue this year since there’s an abundant crop of acorns.”

An average of 52.3 percent of white oak trees and 67.8 percent of red oak trees have produced acorns this year, according to the 2014 Ohio acorn mast survey conducted at 38 wildlife areas across the state by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife.

That’s a 33 percent increase in white oak acorn production over last year, and a 31 percent increase in red oak acorn production, the agency said in a statement.

“Acorn production is cyclical, with some trees producing acorns nearly every year, and others rarely producing,” the statement said. “This year is an above-average year for acorn mast production.”

While producers need to try to keep their cattle and sheep from ingesting all acorns, the green acorns seem to be the most toxic, Smith said.

Symptoms of acorn poisoning can include abdominal pain, excessive thirst, frequent urination, lack of appetite, a thin rapid pulse and rough hair coat.

“If a cattle or sheep producer has acorns or oak trees in their pasture, it may be a good idea to check things out and maybe move the animals to a different part of the field until the squirrels can get in there and carry the acorns away,” he said.

While there is no antidote for acorn toxicity, producers can provide impacted animals with fluid and electrolytes to keep the animal’s kidneys functioning and give the animal mineral oil which will provide a laxative effect, according to a fact sheet from the West Virginia University Extension Service.

“The best bet is to try to keep the animals away from oak trees and keep them from ingesting acorns,” Smith said. “There’s not a lot that can be done to help the animal once it gets to the point of kidney failure because once the kidneys stop working, there’s nothing you can do.”

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