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High levels of mycotoxins in 2017 harvests: Can you safeguard your animals and salvage your feeds?

March 2, 2018

Silage samples from across the U.S., Canada and Europe have shown high levels of mycotoxins, according to the Alltech 2017 Harvest Analysis. The high reading comes on the heels of similar findings in 2016.

As the name implies, mycotoxins are toxic. They can negatively affect the health of animals if contaminated feedstuffs are ingested. The symptoms can be many and varied, but the outcome in all cases will be reduced performance and lost profits.

Produced by certain molds, more than 500 mycotoxins have been discovered to date. Each affects the animal or human in a certain way. Some mycotoxins are carcinogenic, neurotoxic and immunosuppressive.

Climate change and feed storage practices are starting to influence the range of molds occurring in farm feedstocks. And with traditional tilling and crop rotation practices diminishing in many developed countries, mold contamination is persisting year-on-year, making the multiple mycotoxin threat very real.

U.S. sampling shows high mycotoxin count

Samples from American farms submitted to the Alltech 37+® mycotoxin analytical services laboratory in Kentucky between Sept. 1 and Nov. 1, 2017, show that grains contained mixtures of mycotoxins, including deoxynivalenol (DON), fusaric acid and fumonisin.

Fumonisin is commonly found in corn at levels of 2 parts per million (ppm) or less, but this year, testing has confirmed levels well above 30 ppm, and some above 100 ppm.

Forages such as corn silage, barlage and haylage samples also contained multiple mycotoxins in 2017, including DON, fusaric acid, type A trichothecenes (T-2) and fumonisin.

“It’s particularly high right now,” said Dr. Max Hawkins, nutritionist with the Alltech® Mycotoxin Management team. “In the Wisconsin-Minnesota area, we’re about seven-tenths of a mycotoxin-per-sample higher than a year ago. More of the samples we’re seeing have the mycotoxins in them, and the major toxins that are present are four to five times higher than they were a year ago.”

The Canadian findings are much the same

Samples submitted for the Alltech 2017 Canadian Harvest Analysis indicated high levels of DON and zearalenone (ZEA) in grain and forage.

Submitted between Sept. 1 and Oct. 15, 2017, the samples show that grains contained mixtures of mycotoxins, including DON and ZEA. Forages such as corn silage, barlage and haylage samples also contained multiple mycotoxins in 2017, particularly from mycotoxins produced by Fusarium species of molds, such as DON, ZEA and T-2/HT-2 toxins.

Mycotoxin risk levels high in Europe, as well

The Alltech 37+ lab in Dunboyne, Ireland, analyzed samples of wheat, barley, corn, corn silage and grass silage submitted from across Europe. The grain crops are showing risk levels of trichothecenes from DON and T-2 to swine. Silages are showing risk levels of not only DON and T-2, but also high levels of Penicillium and, to a lesser degree, aflatoxin, according to Alltech’s 2017 European Summer Harvest Analysis.

What’s causing this?

Weather conditions can be a major influence.

“Some areas have seen record levels of rain, some areas are experiencing record drought conditions,” Dr. Alexandra Weaver, Alltech Mycotoxin Management technical specialist, said of the European findings. “That’s going to play a big role in the level of mycotoxins you see as well as what types of mycotoxins.”

Weather factors are also suspected in the United States.

“A lot of areas have gone through a cool, wet summer, and cool, wet weather is the preferred environment for Fusarium mold,” said Hawkins. “Fusarium is the mold that produces DON, T-2, ZEA and fusaric acid. Those are the mycotoxins that can become very problematic, and they already appear to be very problematic this year in the corn silage crop.”

Higher levels of mycotoxins appear to be a lingering legacy of the havoc Hurricane Harvey delivered to the Texas Gulf Coast in mid-August.

“In Texas, we have really dramatically high levels of fumonisin,” said Hawkins. “You can track it northward from where that rainfall came up from the Gulf and across the Texas panhandle into Kansas and Nebraska. The levels of fumonisin will begin to decrease, but they’re still much higher than we would typically see in those areas.”

Weather’s important, but there are other factors

While weather is linked to the higher mycotoxin rates of recent years, Weaver suggested that other important factors are contributing to the scope of the findings, including better detection methods as well as increased awareness among farmers.

“We have better ability to test for these toxins now; different agronomic practices play a role — the idea of ‘no-till’ versus ‘till’ has an influence; the use of fungicides may have an influence,” she said. “So there are things that play into this whole topic rather than just the weather, but certainly weather events with excess moisture are going to have a big impact.”

Watching for co-occurrence of mycotoxins

The Alltech 37+ analysis examines over 40 individual mycotoxins in minute levels: parts per billion. The laboratories are especially vigilant for samples containing more than one type of mycotoxin.

“We have a fairly thorough understanding of the additive effects of mycotoxins,” said Hawkins. “But many mycotoxins can have synergistic effects for DON and for fusaric acid. When you have those two together in the same feed or the same ingredient, one plus one does not necessarily equal two. One plus one may equal three, four or five in terms of magnified or synergistic effects.”

Mycotoxins present researchers with challenging paradoxes. Feeding multiple mycotoxins at low levels can be as detrimental or worse than feeding one mycotoxin at a high level, explained Hawkins. One mold species may produce many different mycotoxins, and several species may produce the same mycotoxin.

Hawkins wants people to be aware of multiple mycotoxins and the risk that they present.

“As you make more complex feeds with more ingredients, you’re bringing more and different combinations of mycotoxins into one place, where the animal will have the opportunity to consume it, so the opportunity for risk goes up,” he said.

Helping farmers gain the advantage

The Alltech® RAPIREADTM  tool delivers an integrated system of tools and technologies to the farm to enable quick on-site analysis.

“It’s a handheld lateral-flow device,” explained Hawkins. “We can take samples on-farm for feed ingredients — corn, grain, distillers grains, corn silage — and we don’t check for a broad array of toxins, we’re looking for one, two or three toxins that could be on a very problematic level.

“So, for example, if we’re in Texas, we might be checking corn grain for high fumonisin levels; if we’re in Wisconsin, we might be checking corn silage for high DON or high T-2 levels,” he continued. “And we can give them that answer on the spot within 10 to 20 minutes.”

Based on the information produced by RAPIREAD, the Alltech team can put together a basic management program to help the farmer mitigate the risk of animals going through a period of stress or suffering.

“When the analysis comes back showing extremely high levels of mycotoxins in corn silage — to the point that they didn’t think that they would be able to feed that corn silage — the Alltech team can show them how they can continue to feed the silage they’ve invested in,” said Hawkins. “Alltech puts together a program, monitoring and tweaking as they go along. We can show them that, if they manage it properly in the right program setting, they can still use a feed that has mycotoxins present.”

Alltech® MIKO, a program based on HACCP principles (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points), identifies the mycotoxin risks within a farm or feed mill and creates a plan to minimize the risks to the animal and protect the profitability of operations.

Alltech’s Mycosorb A+® reduces the threat of mycotoxins in animal feed. The technology reduces mycotoxin absorption within the animal, negating the damaging effects of mycotoxins on its health.

“Farmers should carefully consider if and how feed with mycotoxins is used,” cautioned Weaver. “Even minimal changes in feed quality can have a big impact on an animal’s production over time.”

Effective mycotoxin management is about seeing the whole challenge, from the farm to feed mill and from risk assessment to feed management.

The Alltech Mycotoxin Management team has produced a number of species-specific fact sheets, which explain the impact of mycotoxins.

For more information about mycotoxins and to view a collection of case studies, visit

Watch the 2017 U.S. Harvest Analysis Webinar