Here is something you don’t hear much about these days, unless I guess if you are a large-animal vet. More than 100 cows had to be euthanized in New Zealand because their grain feed was contaminated with a fungus called Claviceps purpura which grows on rye grass. The fungus contains alkaloids that have powerful affects on the vascular and nervous systems, leading to seizures and gangrene from interruption of bloodflow to the extremities. The presence of the fungus in the rye grain may be due to a dry summer and wet autumn last year. It takes only a very few (possibly only 3 ergot seeds) to injure a cow.
Cows and grainfeed contaminated with rye grass containing Claviceps purpura fungus (the black seeds)
The really cool thing about Claviceps purpura fungus and ergotism is that many historians believe it is the explanation for the bizarre behavior that led to accusations of witchcraft in the 1600’s. Eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms — all of which are reported in the records of the Salem witchcraft trials. The fungus thrives in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers, conditions which coincidentally also existed in 1691. Nearly all of the accusers lived in the western section of Salem village, a region of swampy meadows that would have been prime breeding ground for the fungus. At that time, rye was the staple grain of Salem. The rye crop consumed in the winter of 1691-1692 — when the first unusual symptoms began to be reported — could easily have been contaminated by large quantities of ergot. The summer of 1692, however, was dry, which could explain the abrupt end of the “bewitchments.”