An Italian farm became an open-air morgue earlier this month after about 50 cows were poisoned by young sorghum plants, an accident experts blame on the drought.
The Piedmontese cattle on the farm in Sommariva del Bosco near Turin in north-western Italy died suddenly on August 6th from acute hydrocyanic acid poisoning, according to the local animal protection association IZS.
This acid comes from dhurrin, which is naturally present in young sorghum plants, although not in the same high concentrations as in samples taken on site.
“We suspect that the drought caused this very large amount of dhurrin in the sorghum plants,” said Stefano Giantin, a veterinarian at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale for north-west Italy who is handling the case.
In normal growing plants, the amount of dhurrin would decrease as the plants get bigger. But since the prolonged drought stunted the growth of sorghum crops, dhurrin has concentrated in them.
Cattle prussic acid poisoning is rapid and violent, with symptoms appearing 10-15 minutes after ingestion and death about 15-30 minutes later. It causes respiratory, nerve and muscle disorders.
Dhurrin occurs naturally in sorghum, particularly in young sprouts that use it as a defense against herbivores, but when digested it releases hydrocyanic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide.
But “usually it doesn’t lead to death,” Giantin told AFP.
In the samples from Sommariva del Bosco, the concentration of dhurrin in the shoots was at an unusually high level, which Giantin says appears to be the result of the drought that hit Italy and much of Europe this summer.
A dose of more than 700 mg/kg hydrocyanic acid is considered lethal in cattle, but levels of more than 900 mg/kg have been found in the blood of the animals in Sommariva.
The only way to save affected cows is to inject them with sodium thiosulfate to neutralize the hydrocyanic acid.
With this, experts were able to save around 30 cows on August 11, when three other farms in Piedmont were affected by the same phenomenon – but not before 14 died.
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