CORVALLIS, Ore. - Straw from tall fescue and perennial ryegrass that has been tested for alkaloid toxicity at Oregon State University's Endophyte Testing Laboratory - and is below the threshold considered harmful to livestock - can be traded directly to Japan without further testing.
An agreement was reached this week between representatives of the Food and Agricultural Materials Inspection Center in Japan and the OSU laboratory, operated by the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
"Essentially, it means that we are like an extension of a FAMIC laboratory," said A. Morrie Craig, a professor of veterinary medicine at OSU and director of the Endophyte Testing Laboratory. "This will make it easier for Northwest grass seed growers to market the straw left over after harvesting the grass seed - and it's a clean industry."
In 1998, Japan temporarily refused shipments of straw from Oregon after the deaths of dairy and beef cattle were traced to toxins produced by endophyte, a fungus bred into perennial ryegrass and tall fescue to promote hardiness and disease-resistance. Unfortunately, when stressed, the endophyte produces alkaloids such as Ergovaline and Lolitrem B, which can be toxic to livestock at certain levels.
"The trend has been to produce grasses with higher endophyte levels because they are so good for lawns and golf courses," Craig said. "And that can create a problem when you're trying to market the straw."
Craig and his colleagues at OSU and within the grass seed industry developed a program to test Oregon straw for endophyte and alkaloid levels and initiated a protocol they called "Solution by Dilution," which mixed alkaloid-free straw with straw that contained high levels of alkaloids to bring the overall levels down to a safe threshold.
For the past decade, Japan has been accepting Oregon straw - only after it has been rigorously tested by one of its six FAMIC labs. Straw sent to the OSU lab for testing has been retested in Japan. Now the lab protocols - and results - are close enough for the Japanese agency to accept OSU test results, Craig said.
The OSU lab tests about 3,700 samples each year and in the process has developed the kind of "traceability" system that Japan requires and the United States is trying to emulate.
"What has happened during the past 10 years is that we have learned a lot about endophytes and alkaloids," Craig said. "Endophyte levels are influenced by the variety of grass, geographic location, soil types, precipitation and when that precipitation occurs. As the plant is stressed, it produces alkaloids and that process also has a lot of variability.
"The 'Solution by Dilution' method has been working, but it always has been considered a short-term solution," Craig added. "We're working on a long-term solution that would make all Oregon straw safe to eat for livestock."
OSU has received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop that solution, which Craig said is modeled after an effort to make cattle less susceptible to tansy ragwort, a weed that produces toxins that can be deadly to livestock. The solution, he said, may be in developing a feed supplement that includes the type of microbes that essentially destroy the toxins.
Keeping cattle safe from endophyte-triggered toxicity is no small matter. Some 55 percent of the fiber diet of Japan's prized Kobe beef comes from Northwest straw. Each year, Oregon and Washington ship 33,000 containers of compressed straw to Japan and Korea.
The Pacific Northwest grows about 70 percent of the seed for the cool season grasses in the world, and OSU's Endophyte Testing Laboratory has begun to develop guidelines for endophyte and alkaloid levels for each of the 100 or so varieties of perennial ryegrass and tall fescue.
More information about the laboratory is available at: http://oregonstate.edu/endophyte-lab/. Additional information on endophyte toxins can be found in an OSU Extension publication (EM 8598), available online at: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/pdf/em/em8598-e.pdf
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Morrie Craig, 541-737-3036