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Excerpt: "The grass is a hybrid form of Bermuda known as Tifton 85 ... the Tifton 85 grass, which has been here for years, had suddenly started producing cyanide gas, poisoning the cattle."v

A cattle ranch in Elgin, Texas, where 15 head succumbed to death by cyanide poisoning after eating a hybrid grass. (photo: KEYE)
A cattle ranch in Elgin, Texas, where 15 head succumbed to death by cyanide poisoning after eating a hybrid grass. (photo: KEYE)

Grass Linked to Texas Cattle Deaths

By CBS News

25 June 12


As originally published, this story was titled GM Grass Linked to Mass Cattle Deaths and referred to Tifton 85 grass as a genetically-modified product, which is incorrect; it is actually a hybrid of Bermuda grass.

mysterious mass death of a herd of cattle has prompted a federal investigation in Central Texas.

Preliminary test results are blaming the deaths on the grass the cows were eating when they got sick, reports CBS Station KEYE.

The cows dropped dead several weeks ago on an 80-acre ranch owned by Jerry Abel in Elgin, just east of Austin.

Abel says he's been using the fields for cattle grazing and hay for 15 years. "A lot of leaf, it's good grass, tested high for protein - it should have been perfect," he told KEYE correspondent Lisa Leigh Kelly.

The grass is a hybrid form of Bermuda known as Tifton 85 which has been growing here for 15 years, feeding Abel's 18 head of Corriente cattle. Corriente are used for team roping because of their small size and horns.

"When we opened that gate to that fresh grass, they were all very anxious to get to that," said Abel.

Three weeks ago, the cattle had just been turned out to enjoy the fresh grass, when something went terribly wrong.

"When our trainer first heard the bellowing, he thought our pregnant heifer may be having a calf or something," said Abel. "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."

Within hours, 15 of the 18 cattle were dead.

"That was very traumatic to see, because there was nothing you could do, obviously, they were dying," said Abel.

Preliminary tests revealed the Tifton 85 grass, which has been here for years, had suddenly started producing cyanide gas, poisoning the cattle.

"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," Dr. Gary Warner, an Elgin veterinarian and cattle specialist who conducted the 15 necropsies, told Kelly.

What is more worrisome: Other farmers have tested their Tifton 85 grass, and several in Bastrop County have found their fields are also toxic with cyanide. However, no other cattle have died.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are dissecting the grass to determine if there might have been some strange, unexpected mutation.

Until it can be determined why this grass suddenly began producing cyanide, Abel is keep his livestock far away.

"The grasshoppers are enjoying it now," he said. your social media marketing partner


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+10 # bluepilgrim 2012-06-25 09:23
Have you tried giving your monster some time-outs, Dr. Frankenstein?

And the word for today is 'pleiotropy'.

More at


Although at least one reporter claims that Tifton 85 grass is not genetically modified, the report upon which she bases her claim does not mention genetic modification one way or another, nor does it specifically state that Tifton 85 was developed by conventional plant breeding. Similar refutations on the web, such as this one stating that Tifton 85 is conventionally bred, offer neither credentials nor any evidence. This site, however, maintained by The Georgia Seed Development Commission, states conclusively that Tifton 85 is a sterile pentaploid, which means that the two parent varieties had differing numbers of chromosomes, ...
"The grass is a genetically modified form of Bermuda known as Tifton 85."

Regardless of whether the Tifton 85 in this case was genetically modified or conventionally bred,...
+2 # PhilO 2012-06-26 16:10
OK, let's tone down the rhetoric and think about this for a moment. I fear that people who speak against an idea, but do so hysterically, are vulnerable to ad hominem attacks, and thus the message (and truth) get lost. The best way to discuss science (and talk with scientists) is to do so using the tools and reasoning of science.

Although I am NOT a fan of GMOs, I believe that a few ideas need to be vetted:

1 - IF the grass spontaneously mutated, what are the chances that the ENTIRE field (or at least a significantly large enough swath to kill so many cows) did so at exactly the same time?

2 - IF the grass spontaneously mutated, why would it suddenly start producing cyanide? As mutations typically affect single genes (or single gene clusters), it's unlikely that an entire set of genes responsible for producing cyanide suddenly emerged.

3 - Considering that the simplest idea/explanatio n is usually the most likely, I suggest that a sudden bloom of cyanide producing insects (such as centipedes) or bacteria (there are many) are to blame. Now, that's not to say that the GMO grass is not responsible for the bloom, but that's not the only (or most likely) explanation.

4 - Is this grass producing cyanide in other fields? Has anyone taken the seeds from this grass (or even a plug of living grass) and grown it to determine if cyanide is produced?
0 # bluepilgrim 2012-06-27 22:48
I wasn't speaking hysterically -- I was posting 2 links with more information, including the doubts about whether the grass was GMO.

It would seem now that it was a hybrid, with one of the grasses already known to produce cyanide under some conditions -- drought in particular.

No, the grass would not spontaneously mutate. But whether GMO or hybrid, we can get unforeseen effects from new genes.
+25 # HeidiStevenson 2012-06-25 09:56
This is a bad story. The grass is not genetically engineered. It's a hybrid. One of the parents of the hybrid is known to produce cyanide gas during droughts. There's no mystery here - and stories like this end up making the anti-GM folk look foolish, which is tragic. GM crops are doing immense harm, and they are killing cattle (and pigs and others), not to mention doing untold harm to humans.
+6 # Old Uncle Dave 2012-06-25 10:31
Cross-breeding is not the same as genetic modification. Most all apples, for example, are hybrids. Nobody is calling them GMOs.
+4 # Zeamike 2012-06-25 10:32
The author of this article needs to do some fact checking and then apologize to her readers..A 15 year old stand of grass could not have been GMO, plain and simple. Cows having eaten dead wild cherry branches have been known to die of a similar ailment...
+2 # AndreM5 2012-06-25 12:13
Unfortunately, the only reference I see above to GM is in the title applied by RSN. I support RSN financially but I a occasionally dismayed by their misleading titles.


Quoting from the 5th paragraph of the article: "The grass is a genetically-mod ified form of Bermuda known as Tifton 85 ...'
+1 # AndreM5 2012-06-25 15:27
Agreed. I tried to retract this comment but hit 'send' way too fast, so my statement about the title is inaccurate from that point of view and I regret it.

Nonetheless, the title is still an inaccurate representation of the facts as other have pointed out.
+1 # Kev C 2012-06-25 19:17
The same sort of title and identity was used in the original article that I read over on the Food website and even the news reporter on the video clip said it was genetically modified grass. Several times as it happens.

It still doesn't answer the question of whether it's actually GM grass. To the best of my knowledge the only GM grass that I remember was the stuff they planted out on a trial some time ago for intended use on golf courses and it was genetically modified to be R/R ready.

So to my mind the Tifton 85 was either under drought stress, which a comment at the Food Renegade site stated had not been the case, or some other stress or trigger had caused the cyanide gas emission.
Watch the video report and make your own mind up.
I for one don't like or trust GM technology and am strongly averse to it ever being introduced to the UK so any issues like this are of interest to me. But only if they are genuinely relevant. As Heidi Stevenson said above these sorts of things make Anti-GM folks look stupid. That's because we can all be lead down the wrong path very quickly unless we thoroughly check the facts. Stay informed but stay honest or they will win.
+2 # MendoChuck 2012-06-25 11:13
What ever the reason that this happened we need to know the cause. Blame will not help if this should turn into something that remains in meat and starts causing deaths in humans.

If as you say this field has been feeding cattle for 15 years what then has it been doing to the cattle for the past 15 years.

Pointing fingers will not help . . . solving the problem will.
+10 # Street Level 2012-06-25 11:26
What's more disturbing to me is that grass, hybrid or not could release cyanide in amounts capable of killing cattle.
+2 # gzuckier 2012-06-25 15:40
Quoting Street Level:
What's more disturbing to me is that grass, hybrid or not could release cyanide in amounts capable of killing cattle.

No kidding. I'm going to kill my lawn before it kills me.
+8 # carolsj 2012-06-25 11:43
HeidiStevenson' s comment is the most relevant here. "One of the parents of the hybrid is known to produce cyanide gas during droughts." If that was known, why on earth would it be used in a feed crop? Maybe it was fine for years, but it was a time bomb waiting for a slightly drier season.
+5 # reiverpacific 2012-06-25 11:48
When will these highly-paid researchers and their no-doubt profit-seeking backers learn the basic fact that there is an evolutionary balance to the natural world (which includes humans and their food sources) and they are pushing it out synch but that there's a tipping point in which we will destroy ourselves eventually, or be purged by the planet's self-defense systems so that the balance can be re-established.
My guess is never!
+4 # panhead49 2012-06-25 13:14
Dang - really has me wondering about Texas. Had to drive through there last November and still vividly remember how bad the stench of sulpher was, all the way across the state on I-10. At the time wondered if that added to the conflagration of those explosive wildfires they had. Two of us were driving non-stop but when we got to Texas found that the driver that was supposed to be sleeping couldn't because of the burning eyes, etc. Move Ft. Hood and the NASA facilities to another state and see if we can't sucker Mexico into taking it back (now that we've broke it).
+2 # RSaunders 2012-06-25 15:39
Point 1) These cows are rodeo cows, not beef cows.
Point 2) Cyanide ingested at low levels, such as from eating almonds, apple seeds, etc. does not poison the meat of the animal. Large doses produce immediate death (see Wikipedia) and no slaughter house would take a suspiciously dead cow for processing into meat.
Point 3) Hybrid bermuda grass is not the only grass that produces cyanide under drought conditions. Johnson grass, which now grows all over the world because it was imported as a desirable forage for livestock during the 1800's, has never been hybridized and it also produces cyanide in frost-wilting or drought-wilting conditions.
Point 4) If this cattleman knew anything about what he was doing, he would know that C4 grasses such as bermuda grass are capable of producing cyanide.
0 # Kev C 2012-06-25 19:30
I wonder if drought was the cause or not because one comment made on another website said there had not been a drought in that area and yet when I watched the video news report the grass looked in a bad way. No self respecting farmer in the UK would call that grass. Looked half starved and very sparse to me. So I am wondering about drought. One way to find out is to search the weather reports for that particular area from say December through to the present to see if there was any reduced rainfall. Any volunteers?
+2 # panhead49 2012-06-25 16:14
RSaunders - what do you think they do with cattle that are no longer usable for a rodeo - send them to a rodeo cow retirement home? Keep them as pets?
-7 # ericlipps 2012-06-25 16:16
I don't know what happened, but I'd find it easier to believe that anti-GM zealots had poisoned the grass with cyanide than that it had suddenly, without warning, begun crankig out lethal amounts of the gas. The incidents described above are just too extreme.
+1 # douglassmyth 2012-06-25 18:49
Want to hold onto those GM plants, do we? Probably don't want to regolate'em, either.

But given what people have said above, this either isn't a GM crop, or it doesn't matter, since other non hybrid/GM grasses do this, too.

GM technology may offer great promise (and profits), but it MUST be rigorously tested and controlled. If that's not possible, it may be better to ban it, ideally, but you can't.

Ban it, and pirate corporations will flood the world with frankenplants and a huge blackmarket will develop globally.
+1 # Kev C 2012-06-25 19:25
Have you any idea how dumb that comment is? There is no way that it would be possible to poison the grass with Cyanide and why in the world would anyone anti to GM do that out in that neck of the woods? Apart from the fact that has already been mentioned several times these types of grass can, under natural but highly stressful situations, produce cyanide compounds and also Prussic Acid too.
So before you make some dumb comment which makes allegations that some people might take seriously I suggest you read the reports and science linked to in the comments above and elsewhere. No one wants livestock like these to suffer anymore than is absolutely necessary. Its also been found on several other farmers land as well so its most definitely not sabotage of any sort. And I am not an anti GM zealot either.
0 # reiverpacific 2012-06-25 20:11
Quoting ericlipps:
I don't know what happened, but I'd find it easier to believe that anti-GM zealots had poisoned the grass with cyanide than that it had suddenly, without warning, begun crankig out lethal amounts of the gas. The incidents described above are just too extreme.

You might want to go and bury y'r head in the ground that this stuff is planted on. Typical "It's all right ma', I'm only bleedin'" attitude.
0 # Glen 2012-06-26 06:03
Actually, ericlipps, even local pasture grass, in times of drought, can kill cattle. That is why many farmers and ranchers test the grass before every hay cutting, to ensure the grass is not producing toxic chemicals or anything related. Same with releasing the cattle into a new field.

But yeah, some folks actually have committed the crime of sabotage to prove an environmental point, so it could happen. Just not in this case.
+1 # Holmes 2012-06-25 20:16
What a load of BS. I would score -5 out of 20 for any young agronomist if they wrote this.

The grass concerned is not a GMO.

We have been losing stock from cyanide in some grasses since we first grazed animals on them. Sorghum is often the culprit.

It is well known in large animal and pasture management that under some conditions (dryer), and growth stages that some grasses will produce toxic levels of cyanide.

This has been known since before the identity and significance of DNA was even thought about, let alone the production of GMO's.

Nature can do it well, so why are we surprised that stock, and people are damaged.

Just follow the traditions cooking instructions for cassava, it to uses cyanide to repel bugs. Also go easy on some what unripe almonds.

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