A case of mass death of cattle has led to a federal investigation in Central Texas. Preliminary results suggest that the deaths were caused by the cows feeding on a hybrid form of grass developed by USDA and University of Georgia scientists.
According to CBS News, the cows died several weeks ago on an 80-acre ranch owned by Jerry Abel in Elgin, east of Austin. The field is cultivated with a form of Bermuda or Tooth grass known as Tifton 85.
Contrary to some reports, the grass is not a GMO plant in the sense in which the term is technically used. A GMO (genetically modified organism) is one whose DNA has been modified by genetic engineering techniques.
Tifton 85 is a Bermuda-derived F1 hybrid. F1 hybrid stands for Filial 1. The first filial generation offspring result from cross mating of distinctly different parental types. The offspring so produced may show specific characteristics that are a combination of the characteristics of both parents.
Raw Story reports that Tifton 85 is the F1 hybrid of African Bermuda grass and an earlier hybrid form called Tifton 68. According to Raw Story, the USDA and the University of Georgia developed it and released it for commercial use in 1992.
CBS News reports that Abel said he has been using the field for grazing his 18 head of Corriente cattle for 15 years. He said: "A lot of leaf, it's good grass, tested high for protein - it should have been perfect."
He told CBS Station KEYE correspondent Lisa Leigh Kelly: "When we opened that gate to that fresh grass, they were all very anxious to get to that... When our trainer first heard the bellowing, he thought our pregnant heifer may be having a calf or something. But when he got down here, virtually all of the steers and heifers were on the ground. Some were already dead, and the others were already in convulsions. That was very traumatic to see, because there was nothing you could do, obviously, they were dying."
Preliminary tests showed that the Tifton 85 grass had suddenly started producing cyanide gas that poisoned the cattle.
Dr. Gary Warner, an Elgin Veterinarian and cattle specialist who conducted the tests, said: "Coming off the drought that we had the last two years... we're concerned it was a combination of events that led us to this."
CBS News reports that other cattle farmers in Bastrop County have tested their Tifton 85 grass and found their fields also have toxic cyanide but no other cattle deaths have been reported.
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are studying the grass to determine if there has been a mutation.