Agri-business News Bermudagrass

Published on June 25th, 2012 | by Heather Carr

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Cyanide-Producing Bermudagrass Kills Texas Cattle





Bermudagrass

A few weeks ago, a herd of cattle in central Texas died after grazing on a field of bermudagrass. The diagnosis took a while because the USDA wanted to be sure, but the answer is certain – the cattle died of cyanide produced by the grass.

Was the Grass Genetically Modified?

The bermudagrass is a variety known as Tifton 85. It’s an F1 hybrid developed by Dr. Glenn Burton and first released in 1992. Dr. Burton used conventional breeding techniques to cross an armyworm-resistant bermudagrass with an African stargrass.

In short, no, it’s not genetically modified, so why do so many reports say it is?

Biotechnology corporations have spent enormous sums of money to convince Americans that genetic modification in a lab is exactly the same as wind pollination or the more deliberate crossing that farmers and gardeners have done for thousands of years. It appears the propaganda mill run by the biotech companies is winning. They’re now reaping what they sowed.

Also, there are genetically modified bermudagrasses on the market. This particular grass is not one of them.

How Does Grass Produce Cyanide?

Many plants produce cyanide, which can be ingested by animals. It’s a known problem for farmers and weeds in pastures are carefully monitored and removed, if possible. This happened in a clean pasture, meaning there were no weeds that could have poisoned the cattle.

As mentioned above, Tifton 85 is a hybrid cross of another bermudagrass (Tifton 68) and an African stargrass. Stargrasses are well-known for producing cyanide. Crossing the stargrass with the bermudagrass reduced the likelihood, but didn’t eliminated the possibility of the grass producing cyanide.

Stargrass produces the cyanide during a period of swift growth after being stressed for a long time. The Texas drought last year was exceptional, but the grass was not newly grown, so that’s not the answer. More research needs to be done to find out why the Tifton 85 produced enough cyanide to kill the cattle so quickly.

Is Other Livestock in Danger?

Tifton 85 is a prime grazing grass for areas with mild winters. It’s highly nutritious, digestible for the animals, and drought-resistant. As a result, it’s fairly popular for grazing and for hay.

The field near Elgin, Texas where the cattle died had Tifton 85 established for many years. Many other nearby ranches also have long-established Tifton 85. The grass on the other ranches has also been tested and it was also found to be producing the cyanide.

So far, the death of the cattle is an isolated incident. However, it is always a good idea to let hungry livestock fill up on previously grazed pasture.

My Lawn Is Bermudagrass. Are My Kids or Pets in Danger?

It’s highly unlikely there is Tifton 85 bermudagrass in anyone’s lawn. It has been bred for digestibility, which is not a necessary trait in a lawn. It also grows taller than most bermudas – an undesirable trait in most municipalities.

Tifton 85 is also expensive. It makes economic sense in a situation where the grass supports an income, such as grazing and haying, but not just for looks.

And, finally, Tifton 85 is not grown from seed. Most likely, the bermudagrass in a suburban lawn was sprayed on in a liquid seed mixture that was a weird, unnatural green. Tifton 85 is grown from sprigs that have to be looked after for the first year. It’s fairly labor-intensive to get it started.

What Now?

More research will be necessary to find out exactly why the Tifton 85 killed these cattle. It might be a mutation in the grass, as some news reports have suggested. It might be the unusual environmental stresses of the past year. It will be interesting to find out.

Source:  Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Bermudagrass photo via Shutterstock

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About the Author

Heather Carr loves food, politics, and innovative ways to make the world a better place. She counts Jacques Pepin and Speed Racer among her inspirations. You can find her on Facebook or .



  • SkepticalVegan

    “Also, there are genetically modified bermudagrasses on the market.”

    Care to name one? From my research there are non currently on the market.

  • Heather Carr

    You’re right. I thought a couple of armyworm-resistant varieties had made it to market, but they haven’t.

  • SKGAMama

    Also, the condition of the cattle upon being turned out into the pasture must be taken into account. They were apparently roping steers, fresh from being worked-tired, stressed, hungry and dehydrated. That definitely factored in to how their digestive systems reacted with the grass, as well.

    • Heather Carr

      You’re right that the cattle were fresh from work when they were turned out on the pasture, but the grass wasn’t in that fresh flush of growth typically associated with cyanide production. Something unusual happened.

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