Can grass be bad for cattle? Experts say sometimes it can be. As hay season draws near, officials with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture are urging farmers to check out their pastures and hay fields before its too late. Ginger Trice explains.

Keith Stephan, Montgomery County Farmer
John Bartee, UT Extension Director, Montgomery County
Debbie Joines, UT Soil, Plant & Pest Center
Ginger Trice, UT Institute of Agriculture

Tennessee is home to more than two million head of cattle. Montgomery County farmer Keith Stephan owns about 40 of them. As a cattle farmer, Stephan spends much of his time working on his pastures.

Oh thats one of the major elements. If you want to achieve some sort of profitability you have to have your pasture in good enough shape.

But in recent years some Tennessee producers have seen the grass they grow to nourish their cattle actually harm them.

Weve had some really disastrous results when people would over fertilize.

John Bartee is the Montgomery County Extension Director. In recent years, hes seen several cattle in his county suffer from a condition known as nitrate toxicity. It typically occurs in dry weather conditions when a lack of moisture prevents plants from converting nitrates to proteins. When a cow eats a high nitrate forage, the nitrates replace oxygen molecules in their blood, which can sometimes cause death.

Most folks dont notice any problems until they are seeing dead cows or calves.

Debbie Joines works at the University of Tennessee Soil, Plant and Pest center in Nashville. Each year she screens hundreds of forage samples for high levels of nitrates. According to Joines, nitrate problems typically occur in warm season grasses like Sudan and Bermuda. She says farmers with these grasses should perform a simple free screen on their pastures and hay crop in order to avoid problems down the road.

Once you cut your hay and it has the high nitrates its not going to dissipate.
Check it before you cut it. That would be my advice. If you find it, I would say give it a little bit of time and hope for rain.

While the weather is out of our control, Bartee says using a fertilizer more efficiently can also help keep pastures safe for cattle.

I think weve really got to take a look at how much nitrate were putting on it. Sure we can get the growth when we dump it on, but we bring on problems with too much nitrates when we do that.