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The impact of mycotoxin in cattle feed on rumen health and productivity of dairy cattle

Important to know...

We don't always fully understand where and when molds produce mycotoxins, but conditions that are stressful for the mold certainly play a role. Molds produce mycotoxins to defend themself against other microorganisms. The direct impact of mycotoxin contamination on animal health and production are well known, but next to that, several mycotoxins can have an indirect effect on dairy health and milk production of dairy cows as well. During the 2023 EAAP congress in Lyon, Professor Gallo from the University of Piacenza shared his latest insights on the impact of mycotoxins in feed.

Figure 1, Levels of Aflatoxin M1 in milk of dairy cows fed a ration without aflatoxin B1 (Group CRT-0), a ration contaminated with aflatoxin B1 (Group CRT-AFLA) or a ration contaminated with aflatoxin and treated with Selko Toxo MX (Group TRT).

Figure 2, milk yield per kg DMI, Fat Corrected Milk yield per kg of DMI and Energy Corrected Milk per kg DMI in dairy cows fed a ration contaminated with aflatoxin B1 (Group CRT-Afla) or a ration contaminated with aflatoxin and treated with Selko Toxo MX (Group TRT).

Toxicity of Aflatoxins and the transfer from feed to milk

Problems with aflatoxins that are related to Aflatoxin M1, a metabolite of Aflatoxin B1, are well understood. Aflatoxin M1 is carcinogenic and and is one of the regulated mycotoxins, with tolerance levels of Aflatoxin and its secondary metabolites being 10 times lower in the EU compared to the US and other countries. Health problems in dairy cows caused by Aflatoxin B1 are less commonly known. Aflatoxin B1 can cause a reduction of rumen function and mastitis. A recent trial showed a significant reduction of rumen fermentation at aflatoxin B1 levels between 300 and 900 ng, but these levels are much higher compared to what can be expected on a commercial dairy farm in Europe.  

A recent trial with mycotoxin analysis showed that exposure to feed with Aflatoxin B1 concentrations below the European Union (EU) limit for regulation of mycotoxins results in Aflatoxin M1 excretion in milk that exceeded the EU regulatory limit of 0.05 ppb (see Figure 1). In the same trial, Selko Toxo MX significantly reduced the transfer of Aflatoxin B1 in feed to Aflatoxin M1 in milk and also significantly improved feed efficiency measured as milk production per kilogram of dry matter ingested (see Figure 2).

Figure 3, age of first oestrus in dairy heifers fed a control diet with a combination of 1 ppb aflatoxin B1 and 3 ppm fumonsin (Group C) fed a combination of 12 ppb aflatoxin B1 and 6 ppm. fumonsin significant levels of aflatoxin B1 (Group A) or fed a combination of 20 ppb aflatoxin B1 and 32 ppm fumonsin (Group A-F) from 18 to 42 weeks of age.

Mycotoxins in silages

Various mycotoxins in silage are nowadays causing serious problems in ruminants. Effects of fusarium toxins on gastro-intestinal epithelium are well studied. Recent trials show that levels of mycotoxins of concern such as aflatoxin, deoxynivalenol (DON), zearalenone (ZEA), ochratoxin, T2 mycotoxin produced by fusarium and fumonisins in feed for dairy and beef cattle are significantly above tolerance levels for regulated mycotoxins that were agreed within the EU. Presence of mycotoxins in commodities is not uncommon. A mycotoxin analysis of maize meal used in dairy cattle nutrition showed elevated mycotoxin concentrations of aflatoxin and fumonisins. A trial in dairy heifers showed that feeding a commodity with these mycotoxins levels had significant negative effect on growth and fertility (see Figure 3).

Figure 4, levels of Aflatoxin M1 in milk of dairy cows fed corn contaminated with Aflatoxin B1 at 175 μg Aflatoxin per cow per day and fed a toxine binder via different methods of application.

Mycotoxin binders for mycotoxin treatment in dairy

A very important class of products that can be used to neutralise common mycotoxins of dairy cattle are the aluminosilicates:

  • Bentonites
  • Montmorillonites
  • Zeolites
  • Illites

Next to that, other options to reduce mycotoxin contamination of dairy feed such as activated carbon, yeast walls, micronized fibres and bacteria such as lactobacillus exist. In-vitro trials show that for mycotoxins that produce different toxins, there is also a difference in binding capacity for mycotoxins between environments with a pH of 3 vs a pH of 7. These different mycotoxin neutralising compounds can be screened with in-vitro tests in which they should bind at least 80% of a mycotoxin to pass the screening. Compounds that pass the screening should be tested in in-vivo experiments with multiple mycotoxins.

Once a certain binding agent is found to be suitable, it greatly matters how it will be applied. In an experiment in which cattle were fed corn contaminated with Aflatoxin B1, the most effective way to reduce the risk of contamination of the milk with Aflatoxin M1 was to add the toxin binder to the complete feed (see Figure 4).

Figure 5: Rumination time of dairy cattle in minutes per day of negative controls on a diet with low levels of Fusarium mycotoxins (CTR), positive controls on a diet with high levels of Fusarium mycotoxins (MXT) or dairy cattle on a diet with high levels of Fusarium mycotoxins in combination with treatment with Selko Toxo-XXL.

Figure 6: Production of Energy Corrected Milk (ECM) of dairy cows on a diet with low levels of Fusarium mycotoxins (CTR), dairy cows on a diet with high levels of Fusarium mycotoxins (MXT) or dairy cows on a diet with high levels of Fusarium mycotoxins in combination with treatment with Selko Toxo-XXL for ruminants.

Mycotoxin binders can reduce the negative effects of mycotoxins in feedstuffs on systemic inflammation, rumen microflora and rumen function of dairy cows. This results in an increase of milk production and a positive impact on the cheese making properties of milk. The adverse effects of commonly found levels of Fusarium mycotoxins and the effect of animal feed decontamination with Selko Toxo HP-R on dairy cow performance after a long period of exposure (54 days) were tested. During the experiment, dairy cows were fed moderate levels of Deoxynivalenol (DON), Zearalenone (ZEA), Fumonisins B1 and Fuminisins B2 (FB) from feeds naturally contaminated with multiple mycotoxins. Rumination time and production of ECM of the dairy cattle included in the study were reduced in the dairy cows on the contaminated diet compared to the negative control cows with no mycotoxins in feed. The dairy cattle treated with Selko Toxo-HP-R had an increase of rumination time and produced more milk compared to both the negative control cows and the cows on the contaminated diet (see Figures 5 and 6). Cheese making properties of the milk from dairy cows treated with Selko Toxo HP-R were also improved.

Figure 7: Classification of the specific fermentative quality of corn silage in 4 different classification systems.

Managing the risk of contamination of ruminant feed with mycotoxins

Ruminants are less sensitive to mycotoxicosis compared to monogastrics, but due to the diversity in diet ingredients, it is hard to completely control mycotoxins in the dairy diet. Corn silages from 66 different dairy farms in Italy were tested for the presence of aspergillus, penicillium and fusarium produced mycotoxins and grouped in 5 different clusters. A high correlation between the type of mycotoxin contamination and the metabolic profile of milk from the 66 different dairy farms was found.

Many factors are involved in enhancing the formation of mycotoxins. They are plant susceptibility to fungal infestation, suitability of fungal substrate to support mold growth, climate conditions, moisture content and physical damage of seeds due to insects and pests. Toxin-producing fungi may invade at pre-harvesting period, during harvesting, during post-harvest handling and in storage. According to the site where fungi infest grains, toxinogenic fungi can be divided into three groups: field fungi, storage fungi and advanced deterioration fungi. Various indexes are being used to classify the quality of fermentation of a corn silage (see Figure 7). These different indexes seem to have a poor correlation. 

Preliminary work with Near Infrared Spectroscopy looks like a promising alternative to testing for mycotoxins in corn. A mycotoxin analysis was carried out to test levels of different  common mycotoxins in 120 samples of corn silage. Subsequently, these samples were tested with  Near Infrared Spectroscopy. 97% of the samples with less than 31 mycotoxins were correctly classified as having low levels of contamination with mycotoxins, whereas 100% of the samples with more than 31 mycotoxins were correctly classified as having high levels of contamination with mycotoxins.

Figure 8: feed efficiency in two groups of dairy cows, either fed corn silage with a seeding density of 13.0 seeds m2 (NANO) or 8.2 seeds m2 (DC).

The impact of forage quality on feed efficiency of dairy cattle

A survey was carried out to characterize the different feeding strategies adopted on dairy cow farms in the Po Valley in Italy using corn silage rations. The aim of the study was to characterize the chemical composition of the diets, the fermentation profile of the diets, methane production, the ability to meet nutrient requirements, herd feed efficiency, milk production and quality, and fecal fermentation profile. 66 dairy farms were included in the survey which could be divided into 6 clusters with similar approaches. Huge variations were found between the different clusters of dairy farms, but it was found that starch digestibility of the diet could strongly influence farm profitability and intestinal health status of dairy cows.

Agronomical aspects will also have to be taken into account. A trial was carried out in which corn was planted at two different seed densities:

  • 13.0 seeds m2 (smart or NANO)
  • 8.2 seeds m2 (conventional or DC)

Both the corn with the normal seeding density and the corn with the higher seeding density were ensiled and fed to 2 different groups of dairy cattle. Dry matter intake and milk yield were increased in the group of dairy cows fed the corn at higher seeding density, resulting in a significant increase of feed efficiency (see Figure 8).

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You can access all of our documentation about Selko protocols, sustainable dairy farming and latest research insights about Dairy Cow health & fertility.

Problems with mycotoxins in dairy cattle are not always easy to recognise

The moulds that produce mycotoxins are sometimes visible when crops are harvested, but the mycotoxins themselves are invisible. Thus, mycotoxins will only be found in dairy feedstuffs if it is being analysed. Yet, even if the feed is being analysed, there is still the risk of sampling error and “masked” mycotoxins. These masked mycotoxins are conjugates of mycotoxins that are formed by plant metabolism and cannot be detected with standard methods.

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