North Carolina cattlemen warned of nitrates in forage

With the North Carolina hay shortage predicted to exceed 250,000 tons this year, many beef cattle producers have turned to alternative feed sources they might not be familiar with. Producers have reported being satisfied with the feed they’ve been able to obtain, but rumors of nitrate poisoning have caused alarm in some counties.

So far, these rumors have not been substantiated, but Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler wants to remind producers that having feed tested for quality is especially important this year because of the drought.

“For the past few months, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and North Carolina Cooperative Extension have coordinated educational sessions about the use of dried corn stalks and leaves as feed,” Troxler said. “Large quantities have been harvested for use during the coming winter, and cattlemen have been surprised at how well the cows consume this material, commonly known as stover.”

“To my knowledge, we have not had any problems with herds that have been on a corn stalk diet,” said Jeff Carpenter, area livestock agent for Catawba, Gaston and Lincoln counties. “One farmer did lose a mature cow, but the NCDA&CS diagnostic lab determined that it did not die of nitrate poisoning.”

One of Carpenter’s local farmers contracted for 150 rolls of corn stalks, but was skeptical about using them. Within a month, he called wanting to know where he could get some more, Carpenter said. The cows had almost finished all the stover the farmer already bought.

In Carpenter’s area, three stover samples out of the 30 sent to the NCDA&CS Feed and Forage Testing Laboratory have had nitrate levels above 0.5 percent. Nitrate values at this level are considered a moderate risk to pregnant animals. Carpenter has been working closely with the affected livestock producers to make sure this stover is used safely.

Statewide, 11 percent of the stover samples submitted to the NCDA&CS feed and forage lab have contained at least 0.5 percent nitrates. However, the only reported nitrate-related cattle deaths this season have been from bermudagrass hay, not corn stover.

Because few samples have contained high nitrate levels, producers should consider corn stover a viable — and economical — livestock feed option during the drought. But the results also show the importance of testing for nitrates. Whenever any feed or forage tests positive for nitrates above 0.25 percent, consult a Cooperative Extension livestock agent regarding the safety of its use.

For detailed information about feeding livestock during the drought, visit the NCDA&CS Ag Drought Resource Information Page at or Cooperative Extension’s Drought Education Page at To submit forage samples for nutritional analysis, log on to or call (919) 733-7366.

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