To Understand The Prussic Acid Risk In Warm Season Annuals after Frost

On October 05, 2020

To Understand The Prussic Acid Risk In Warm Season Annuals after Frost

As we enter the frost period in the fall, farmers need to manage the risk of prussic acid poisoning in warm season annuals. Extension Agronomist Leanna Duppstadt explains a cyanogenic compound is normally found in sorghum species in a bound, non-toxic form called dhurrin. However, after a killing frost or another source of damage to the plant, a compound also present in these forages called emulsion reacts with the dhurrin and “frees” it, causing a highly toxic, extremely poisonous cyanogenic compound to be produced within the plant. Cyanide interferes with the oxygen-carrying function in the blood, resulting in animal asphyxiation. A concentration of a mere 0.1 percent or greater of dry tissue is considered dangerous and could kill livestock. Ruminants are more susceptible since they consume large amounts of forage and the rumen microbes may aid in the release of the cyanide from the consumed plant tissue.

All species of sorghum contain prussic acid within the vegetative portion of the plant. Sorghum, johnsongrass, and shattercane contain the greatest levels of prussic acid and can still be hazardous as weeds in pure stands of sudangrass or sorghum-sudangrass fields or pastures. Sudangrass contains approximately 40 percent less prussic acid than other sorghums; however, a sorghum x sudangrass hybrid contains a greater level of the toxic compound than sudangrass alone. Improvements in genetic development of forages now allow options for planting varieties of sorghums that contain lower levels of prussic acid, helping to reduce the risk of prussic acid poisoning in livestock.

Another option for incorporating a summer annual pasture or hay crop while reducing the risk of prussic acid poisoning is the use of pearl millet and foxtail millet, which do not contain toxic levels of prussic acid, even after a killing frost. Therefore, it can be grazed any time. Corn is another warm season annual that does not have this issue.

Generally, the greatest levels of prussic acid can be found in the leafier areas of the plant, in particular when the plant is at the boot stage. As plants mature, the prussic acid content declines because the stalk makes up a larger percentage of the plant.

After a killing frost, forage tissues rupture, and cyanide can form. Toxic prussic acid does not begin to decline until after the leaves have died. Since cyanide is a gas, it slowly dissipates over time as the plant tissue dries, so to be safe, wait at least 7-10 days after a killing frost to graze or green chop forage. If forages regrow after a non-killing frost, do not graze or feed until the regrowth has reached a minimum of 2 feet in height or 2 weeks, as the regrowth will likely contain high, very toxic levels of prussic acid. Remember that even with overall decreasing prussic acid concentrations, animals may selectively graze young growth that still has high concentrations. Rotational grazing or feeding with other safe pastures, dry hay or ground cereal grains beforehand can reduce the risk by decreasing their overall consumption. Green chop can decrease the risk as well since it cannot be selectively grazed, and the less toxic stems will help to dilute the concentrations.

If chopping for silage is desired, a producer should wait 5-7 days after a frost before harvesting. These forages with a risk of high cyanide levels at the time of chopping should be ensiled for a minimum of 8 weeks before feeding. Storage allows the cyanide gas to escape over time during the fermentation process, but silage should be analyzed before feeding to ensure the toxic compounds have been reduced to a safe level for consumption.

Prussic acid concentrations also decline up to 75% during the hay drying process. Frosted forage can be mowed at any time after a frost.

It is important to note that heavy rates of fertilization and drought can also cause high levels of prussic acid accumulation in these forages even months before a killing frost; therefore, precaution should be taken during these conditions as well. Ensiling these forages helps to reduce the risk of toxic levels of prussic acid. Sorghum silage should not be fed any earlier than 3-4 weeks after harvest as a precaution.

If you believe that your livestock are experiencing any symptoms of prussic acid poisoning, which can include labored breathing, excess salivation, staggering, and convulsions, contact a veterinarian immediately. Symptoms appear rapidly, within minutes depending on consumption rate, and treatment needs to be administered quickly. If you are concerned about feeding frosted forages, you can have it tested for cyanide concentration. For more information on testing for prussic acid, contact your local Extension office or questionable forage can be tested for prussic acid (HCN) at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Summerdale Laboratory in Harrisburg (717-787-8808).



Image Caption: Sorghum-sudangrass forage. Image Credit: Leanna Duppstadt


To Stay Safe During Harvest

Harvest season is upon us, and with that comes an increase in grain handling and storage.  Extension Safety Specialist Steven Brown  explains with the increase of tasks that harvest season can bring, there is also an increase in various hazards.  Each year, lost-time work incidents and fatalities are reported from grain related incidents.  Because of this, it is important to keep proper safety practices the highest priority.

Grain storage structures are an important part of grain production.  It is important that bins are well maintained to deter pest and environmental elements such as moisture to affect grain quality.  Moisture in grain can cause spoiling and clumping to occur which can lead to other dangerous conditions such as clogged unloading equipment, grain bridging, and grain avalanches.  Harvesting and storing grain at the proper moisture content will lead to a better quality of grain and safer work conditions.

Grain entrapments and engulfments can occur in storage structures or transport vehicles because of unloading equipment or out of condition grain. When unloading equipment is powered on or unloading chutes are opened, the grain begins flowing down the channel. If a person is present, it can pull the individual further and further into the grain. The flowing grain from above collapses in surrounding and engulfing the individual. It only takes seconds for an individual to become entrapped to a point they cannot self-extricate.   Very similarly, grain bridging and avalanches can lead to an engulfment as well.  A grain bridge will occur when grain sticks together forming a false surface of grain with a void space below. If a person attempts to enter the grain bin, they can break through the surface, fall into the void space, and be covered by the surrounding grain.  Grain avalanches occur when grain becomes stuck to the bin walls after unloading.  Often an entrant will attempt to remove the stuck grain from the bin floor, and it will collapse on top of them.   Before entering a grain bin or transport vehicle, consider referencing material such as OSHA CFR 1910.272:

Here are some key safety points from this document. Ensure all warning labels are present and visible. Use a lifeline and full-body harness system and have an observer on the outside of the bin. Lockout/Tagout all power sources before entry. Never enter a bin or transport vehicle while unloading equipment is active. Never work below grain stuck to bin walls. Do not work around grain alone.

Quote Of The Week: “There must be labor, incessant and constant, if there is to be a harvest.” Gordon B. Hinckley