Ed Metzger from South West Ontario Veterinary Services, Ergot Toxins Can Stop Milk Production


When sows start drying up (agalactia) after farrowing and then piglets start dying from starvation the cause of the shortage of milk is not always readily apparent. Ergot toxicity is one of the potential health issues that can cause agalactia in sows. Typical clinical signs of ergot poisoning reported in pigs include vasoconstriction (tightening of blood vessels)  which may progress into gangrene. Ergot toxins or “alkaloids” can also cause disruption of reproduction, abortion and impaired growth. The problem is not new. It has certainly been a sporadic problem that has been reported in multiple food animal species in Ontario, Canada. Recently, there has been an increase in the occurrence of ergot alkaloid contamination in Europe.

In France , a group of veterinarians recently observed a case of ergot toxicity in a 160 sow farrow-to-finish pig farm. The initial complaint was excessive baby pig mortality that was associated with a loss of appetite and agalactia in sows. Up to 76% piglet mortality was observed in the most severely affected batch with 13 of 20 sows affected. Post mortems showed that the piglets had empty stomachs and intestines but there were no other signs of disease. Gestating and lactating sow diet samples, as well as a wheat sample, were sent for mycotoxin analysis.  Total ergot alkaloids in all of the samples ranged from 3.49 mg/kg in the gestating diet to 8.06 mg/kg in the lactating diet. The contaminated feed was removed and the situation returned to normal 3 weeks later in the following batch of sows. In Canada, the maximum allowable levels of ergot alkaloids in feed is prescribed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the allowable levels are between 4 and 6 mg/kg (ppm) for pigs.
Take Home Messages:
–  In this case a level of 3.49 mg/kg appeared to contribute to the agalactia despite this level being listed as within the CFIA maximum tolerable levels in swine feed.
– the agalactiae was not accompanied by vasoconstriction, gangrene and bits and pieces of body parts falling off despite the evidence that the ergot was causing the agalactia.
– Inspecting grain and finding no evidence of “sclerotia” does not prove that there is no ergot alkaloid.

Ref:  Waret-Szkuta A, Larraillet L, Oswald IP, Legrand X, Guerre P, Martineau GP.   Unusual acute neonatal mortality and sow agalactia linked with ergot alkaloid contamination of feed.  Porcine Health Manag. 2019 Nov 6;5:24. doi: 10.1186/s40813-019-0131-z. eCollection 2019.


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