Even the smallest of holes can allow enough moisture to get into silage and other feed to form toxin-laden molds that are dangerous to livestock. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

This story was originally published in December 2020.

For the most part, poultry and livestock are not picky eaters, but they are often discerning enough to turn up their noses or beaks at spoiled feed. That’s a good thing, because eating bad feed not only leaves a bad taste in an animal’s mouth, it can be extremely dangerous to their health.

It’s not always obvious when feed has gone bad, according to Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine veterinary diagnostic laboratory.

“If you open up a bag of feed and it looks or smells weird, you know something is wrong,” Lichtenwalner said. “But other times you can’t tell if something is wrong, but if your animal turns up its nose, there is probably something going on with that food.”

Animals are often better equipped to detect the presence of toxins or problems in feed due to their powerful taste receptors and olfactory systems.

The biggest animal health concern with bad feed are mycotoxins.

Mycotoxins are naturally occuring toxins produced by molds and fungi, which can cause acute poisoning, immune deficiency and even cancer in both humans and animals.

“Sometimes there can be problems with feed due to fungus and some of them are no big deal,” Lichtenwalner said. “But we also know we have to be careful because some are capable of creating nasty problems.”

Grains stored in seedbags can also become infested with insects, according to Dr. Rick Kersbergan, sustainable dairy and forage systems professor with University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“There can be insect damage to grain if it has been stored for a long time,” Kersbergan said. “If it’s something you just bought and you see evidence of insects when you open the bag, I’d take it back for a refund.”

Lichtenwalner recommends storing a small amount of feed from a newly opened bag.

“I tell poultry owners when they buy a bunch of feed, when they open a bag, take a brand new Ziploc baggie, label it, put a cup or two of feed in it, seal it up and put it in the freezer,” she said. “Then, if after you have fed out all of the feed from that bag and your livestock is happy, you can just feed them what’s in the baggie, but if you do end up with a problem that could have something to do with that feed, then you have something to test.”

University of Maine Cooperative Extension staff can assist in getting suspect feed tested, Lichtenwalner said. It’s also important to contact the distributor from whom you bought the feed to let them know of any problems and offer to bring them samples of the feed to inspect and test.

Livestock silage like hay is also at risk for mycotoxin production if it gets wet.

“It’s fairly easy to spot,” Kersbergn said. “Break open a bale, and if you see that it’s dark and damp or if dust comes out, you have a mold problem.”

He advises against feeding any forage or hay to an animal that looks moldy or dusty, as it could contain mycotoxins.

“Dust and mold in silage, hay or straw is not just bad for your animals,” Kersbergan said. “If you have a log of it and breathe it in for a period of time, you can get what we call farmer’s lung.”

Farmer’s lung can initially cause difficulty breathing, but if ignored, it can cause permanent lung damage and in the most serious cases, death.

Many of these issues can be avoided by making sure the feed you purchase is fresh and that you properly store it, according to Lichtenwalner.

Grains should be stored in sealed metal containers that not only keep the feed dry, but prevent rodents from getting to it. Feed should always be stored under cover and it should not be allowed to get wet.

“Never allow even the smallest amount of water to leak into your grains,” Lichtenwalner said. “I have heard many sad stories from people who found pin-point size holes in a container that let in enough fluid to wreck their grain.”

With careful attention to storage and always buying feed or silage from distributors who deal in fresh feed, your livestock and poultry should have no reason to pass up any meal you give them.

Watch more:

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.