The delightful stuff, those pigs, but it’s extremely poisonous to cows and horses

Cattle farmer Dirk Bruins pulls a ragwort from his grazing area. His cows could get sick from it.Harry Cook / de Volkskrant Statue

With both hands around the trunk, Dirk Bruins rips a piglet out of the ground at the edge of his meadow in Dwingeloo. The dairy farmer is not a fan of the plant. Last summer, Bruins saw the skin of one of his cows peel off, “a very bad sight.” He glanced at the vet, and asked him if the animal had eaten ragourt.

LTO Farmers Association – Bruins is president of LTO Noord – concerned about the progress of the cheerful yellow plant. The association calls on municipalities, counties, water boards and other site managers to reduce weeds around grazing areas. Fifteen years ago, counties began adding grass to seed mixtures to strengthen roadsides and improve biodiversity. Drenthe County, among other areas, has now omitted ragwort from the mix, but the plant bears a lot of seed and is thriving. The sandy soil of Holland is rapidly turning yellow due to the current wet summer.

Eating ragweed is harmful to mammals – it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) that affect the liver. Cows and horses in particular can get sick if they eat too much of the plant. In humans, the liver can be damaged if they regularly drink tea made from plants containing PA. Horses and cows do not usually eat the plant because it tastes bitter.

dead foals

But if the ragwort is grown in pasture, it may end up in hay after mowing and mowing. Animals no longer taste it. Last year, the LTO conducted a survey among horse owners in the Netherlands. Of the 1,550 people surveyed, nearly 90 percent found piglets on their land. A third of them said they had problems, such as horses with liver disease and dead foals.

Ecologist Nils van Ruijen of Wageningen University is skeptical. He acknowledges that the plant is poisonous, but stresses that cows and horses will ignore pasture-grass as long as there are enough alternatives. In addition, they have to eat a lot of boar before they can become seriously ill – a dose of about 20 percent of their body weight is lethal.

Once you get to know the plant, you will see it everywhere. In built-up areas, on the edge of industrial cities, in sand dunes. “Rabwort grows well in wastelands,” says van Roygen. They occur in horse pastures when bare spots develop. But it hardly grows in a thick grass meadow. It is true that it releases many seeds and therefore can advance significantly. But they are not good wind scatterers. The seed does not exceed a few meters.

Boer Bruins points to the field. The longer you look, the more yellow tufts appear. “You have theory and practice,” he says. You could say the plants only grow on the side of the road, but I can really see them in my garden. I can still withdraw this amount manually. But if you’re close to the A28, on the slope where everything is yellow, that’s a different story. There is always wind. Believe me, these seeds will go much further.

Vet Wim Young from Bekenland Veterinary Center in Gelderland understands Bruins’ concerns. The plant’s alkaloids are converted into toxins that destroy liver cells. After repeated exposure, the liver loses its capacity. “The liver damage is irreversible.” According to European guidelines, the presence of alkaloids in animal feed is not allowed, since transfer to milk is possible.

Easy to fight

Farmer Bruins and ecologist Van Rooijen agree on one thing: ragwort is easy to fight. If municipalities and other authorities modify their mowing policy and use them at the edge of many other plant species, the seed has little chance of germination. Van Rooijen says Ragwort is usually a biennial. “If you stop him from getting a space, he’s gone in no time.” But the roadsides are later mowed on purpose to allow the insects to take advantage of the plants.

Chris Van Sway, project lead at the Butterfly Foundation, wants it to stay that way. This herb is found naturally in Holland. “Rabwort is an important supplier of nectar, and there are insects that only eat this plant.” As long as farmers are careful that the grass doesn’t end up in the hay, the plant can survive as long as it is concerned.

“It doesn’t have to leave everywhere,” Bruins replies. ‘But this plant has been planted. So how normal is it to let him take over everything? Although sick cows produce less milk, the Bruins aren’t just about the economic story. I’m afraid people will think: Look, farmers are against something again. But I’m not against roadside farming at all.

He himself willingly grows wildflowers on the edges of his plots. “Because it’s good for biodiversity.” But also because he thinks he’s a pretty face. Purple from thistles, red from poppies – and yellow. But then daisies.

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