Photo by Sue Weaver
If your sheep are sick and you don’t know why, poisonous plants in the pasture might be to blame.
This week’s question is from Sharon DeJonge, who asks, “We live in North Florida and are getting a few lambs. We have many weeds in our field. Are there any toxic ones we should worry about?”
Sharon, no matter where you live in North America, there could be plants growing on your farm that are poisonous to livestock. There are a few questions you can ask yourself to figure out if the poisonous plants will be a problem:
1. Are your sheep tempted to eat the poisonous plants?
Poisonous plants aren’t necessarily attractive to sheep. Pasture-wise animals seem to intuitively know which plants they can safely consume, and many poisonous plants taste horrid to them. Sheep (and us goats) won’t eat them unless we’re desperately hungry and we have to eat those plants to keep from starving.
2. Will your sheep eat an amount of the poisonous plants to cause concern?
Many “poisonous” plants are only toxic, so unless we eat them in massive quantities or over a length of time, they won’t really hurt us.
3. Will your sheep consume the poisonous part of the plant?
Sometimes only a portion of a plant—such as its roots, wilted leaves or seeds—is poisonous. Other times, the plant is only poisonous at certain stages of its growth, and sheep might not eat the plant at that time of the year.
4. Are your sheep immune to the compounds in a given plant?
Many poison plants are species-specific. Some humans, like my Mom, love boiled milkweed shoots, but milkweed is poisonous to sheep and goats. Goats (myself and my friends included) love poke, but poke is toxic to sheep. One species’ poison may be another species’ tasty dinner!
You should know which poisonous or toxic plants are growing in your sheep’s pasture and how to zap them if you like. Your best source of information is your cooperative-extension agent. He or she is familiar with plant species that grow in your area and how to deal with them.
You’ll also find lots of useful resources online, including sites to help you identify wild plants. Always be cautious when getting your info online, though, and make sure the writer really knows his stuff! Here are some I recommend:
- Because most plants that are toxic or poisonous to goats are also poisonous to sheep, a good one for you is Florida A&M’s color bulletin, “Plants Poisonous to Goats and Other Livestock in the Southeast.”
- Another great resource—especially for readers from other parts of the country or who keep additional kinds of livestock and farm pets—is Cornell University Department of Animal Science’s Plants Poisonous to Livestock website. You can click on each species for a list of poisonous plants, and then click on their scientific names to see pictures of each plant.
- And the Maryland Small Ruminant Page’s poisonous plants and plant toxins page is a treasure trove of links to material about poisonous plants and plant toxins.
You probably won’t be able to eradicate every poisonous or toxic plant in your flock’s environment, so if one of your sheep gets sick you should keep plant poisoning in mind. If you think one of your animals has been poisoned, look for these symptoms:
- standing alone, away from the flock or herd
- acting confused
- holding head down
- refusing feed
- drinking large amounts of water