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Toxic Plants and Small Ruminants – Wild Cherry

12 October 2020

Ohio State University

To wrap up Animal Sciences undergraduate student Ag-notes, Ohio State students Autum Ballard, Madison Findley, Emily Gaglione, and Cassandra Randolph have chosen to highlight a toxic plant that is known to be an issue in livestock pastures, especially during the peak of summer among high wind systems – Wild Cherry trees.

Wild Cherry, a tree commonly found in Ohio woodlands, can cause severe health issues in livestock when plant material is consumed by livestock after the plant has been stressed.

One of the greatest concerns with Wild Cherry trees is the cyanogenic precursors that the leaves contain. When a Wild Cherry tree experiences any type of stress (i.e. frost, drought, and storms resulting in physical damage), trees leaves will begin to wilt. During the wilting process, a glycoside within the leaves will dissociate and will be turned into cyanide and sugars. This is were problems begin. In general, animals tend to be attracted to the higher levels of available sugar within the leaves and as a result, livestock will thus consume the leaves. However, as a result of consuming these palatable leaves, livestock are also exposed to a high level of cyanide.

Cyanide, a fast acting poison, will immediately negatively affect the host in which consumes it. In addition Wild Cherry tree leaves, Wild Cherry seeds are known to have elevated levels of cyanide. However, the flesh of the cherry seed is safe to eat and thus may be a reason upon why there are fewer issues associated with the seed as compared to the leaf.

So, you more than likely have traversed your pastures and fences lines several times this year to ensure they are still functioning properly, but have you taken the time to identify the trees species that are close and among your pastures? If so, well done! If not, no worries – here are some helpful tips to help you decipher whether or not you have some Wild Cherry trees amongst your property.

Wild Cherry trees have bark in which appears scaly in appearance (as shown in the image above). Mature trees are dark gray to black in color. Tree leaves are leathery to the touch and are elongated in shape. Tree flowers are white and very fragrant. The cherries produced by the Wild Cherry tree are dark red. Wild Cherry trees are commonly found around fence lines and open woods are they require a lot of sunlight for optimal growth.

What do you do if you find Wild Cherry trees on your property? In reality, nothing has to be done, just ensure that you keep a close eye on these trees, especially after summer rain storms as broken tree limbs containing wilting leaves may be available to grazing livestock. If this does occur, either remove your livestock from this area or remove all leaves and tree materials that have fallen.

If you choose to remove your livestock from the affected area, animals may be re-introduced once the leaves have been removed or dried. If you are concerned about this type of event happening regularly, you may also opt to remove the tree completely by harvesting it. In the poster, herbicide application and mowing may also be viable options in removing trees as well, but if the tree is of size, harvesting the tree for lumber will be the most economical decision.

As an example, if Wild Cherry trees are in your pasture and around your property and have just experienced a storm the night before. Go out to check on your livestock to see if there are several Wild Cherry tree limbs down in the field and the animals are beginning to graze for the day. How do you know if your livestock have consumed any of the leaves? As discussed earlier here, the ingestion of wilted Wild Cherry leaves may result in cyanide poisoning. Symptoms can occur as quickly as 15-20 minutes post ingestion. Primarily, cyanide poisoning results in decreased blood flow to the brain and can cause increased salivation, an increase in respiration rate, weak pulse, and convulsions. Unfortunately, once symptoms manifest, recovery is rare as animal death is inevitable and occurs within 30-45 minutes of the initial symptoms. However, there are documented cases where animals may recover, but again, these cases tend to be few and far between.

If you suspect that your animals are experiencing an issue with cyanide poisoning, be sure to connect with your local and/or farm veterinarian immediately. In doing so, you can be assured that your assessment of the situation was correct and know how to correct for it in the future. In the case that it is not cyanide poisoning, you and your veterinarian will be able to determine what other underlying health issues you may be facing in your operation. Therefore, throughout the growing season, be sure to not only check on your animals on a daily basis, but also the environment in which they are in, which may sometimes include fence lines and treed areas within your grazing systems.