Feeding Lambs on Rape and Kale

Author: Neil Sargison BA VetMB DSHP FRCVS
Reviewed: Neil Sargison PhD BA VetMB DSHP FRCVS 2017
Published: 2003


1 Feeding lambs rape and kale

Fig 1 Forage rape or kale crops can provide a useful buffer in times of poor grass growth.

Forage rape and kale provide a balanced source of carbohydrate, protein, fibre and minerals and are valuable green winter feeds for sheep.  However, when fed exclusively for a prolonged period, lambs seldom achieve growth rates which would be predicted on the basis of the feed analysis.  This is because Brassica crops contain varying amounts of several important toxic substances which cause depressed appetite.  The list of toxic substances includes -

  • nitrates
  • photosensitive substances
  • haemolytic anaemia factors
  • oxalates
  • glucosinolates (goitrogen precursors, which can induce iodine deficiency)
  • sulphur and molybdenum (which can induce copper deficiency)
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Plants absorb nitrates from the soil and generally convert them rapidly to other nitrogenous compounds.  Nitrates accumulate in the soil during periods of drought and are taken up by plants in large amounts when the drought ends.  Overcast conditions favour plant storage of nitrates, while in bright sunlight, nitrates are converted to amino acids and proteins.  Brassica crops may accumulate particularly high concentrations of nitrates.

2 Feeding lambs rape and kale nitrate

Fig 2 Roots and stems usually contain more nitrate than leaves

The main importance of nitrates is as a source of nitrites, which are formed in the rumen after ingestion of the nitrate.  Nitrite poisoning is an uncommon cause of death in store lambs, but when the problem occurs, lamb losses can be high.

Absorbed nitrites combine with haemoglobin in the blood to form methaemoglobin, which is incapable of transporting oxygen.  The clinical signs associated with nitrite poisoning include gasping and rapid respiration, a rapid heart rate, muscle tremors and weakness.  In severe cases membranes appear brown-coloured, and eventually cyanotic in appearance due to the high blood methaemoglobin content. Death can occur within a few hours of eating nitrate-rich plants, although it is more usual for a few days to elapse before signs appear.  Abortion is sometimes seen as a sequel to severe nitrate poisoning.

Your vet can advise you about the diagnosis and management of nitrate/nitrite poisoning in your flock.

Photosensitising agents

Photosensitisation occurs following the accumulation of photosensitive metabolites under the skin and their reaction with sunlight to cause necrotic damage.  Affected skin is swollen and often oozes serous fluid which dries to form yellow crusts.  Clinical signs in sheep are usually confined to wool-free un-pigmented areas of the face, ears and limbs, but in some sheep breeds the skin of the midline of the back at the parting of the fleece is also affected.  Severely affected animals don't eat and rapidly lose body condition.

3 Feeding lambs rape and kale photosensitisation skin necrosis

Haemolytic anaemia

One particularly important toxic substance present in rape and kale crops is a haemolytic anaemia factor, S-methylcysteine sulfoxide (SMCO).  SMCO is converted by bacterial fermentation in the rumen to dimethyl disulfide, which causes haemolysis.  Severity of the disease is proportional to the SMCO content of the crop.  When present in small amounts, the toxin results in poor growth rates.  However, when SMCO is present in high concentrations, lambs become anaemic, with red urine, progressing rapidly to death.

4 Feeding lambs rape and kale low SMCO content

Fig 4 The SMCO content of most forage brassica varieties is low
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SMCO concentrations in plants can be analysed and Brassica crops categorised as low or high potential risk.  However, SMCO increases with the age of the crop, so even low risk varieties can become potentially hazardous as they reach maturity or if they are fed to excess.  To avoid these risks, long-keep store lambs should not be grazed on Brassica crops for prolonged periods and animals should be provided with a pasture run-off or supplementary feed.

5 Feeding lambs rape and kale dry run-off area

Fig 5 It is important that sheep on brassica crops are provided with a dry run-off area

Your vet can advise you about the diagnosis of haemolytic anaemia in your sheep.  When the disease is suspected, animals should be removed from the crop and carefully introduced to supplementary feed.

Goitrogenic glycosides (glucosinolates)

Glucosinolates present in Brassica crops can cause goitre, reduced growth rates and/or diarrhoea, depending on their composition.  Sudden onset blindness in sheep (rape blindness) is also thought to be associated with glucosinolate poisoning.  The highest concentration of these glycosides is present in the seeds of mature plants.

6 feeding lambs

Fig 6 Toxic substances may also account for high barren rates when ewes are moved onto brassica crops at mating

7 Feeding lambs rape and kale lamb losses

Fig 7 Goitre predisposes to lamb losses from starvation/hypothermia/mismothering and can be important when pregnant ewes are fed on forage brassica crops

Sudden deaths in lambs

Sudden deaths are often seen in lambs within about 2 - 3 weeks of a move onto Brassica crops, associated with changes in feed rather than specific toxicities.  There were NADIS reports during October of sudden deaths due to redgut, pulpy kidney, systemic pasteurellosis and CCN, caused by a move onto forage crops.

8 Feeding lambs rape and kale sudden death

Fig 8 CCN in a mule lamb. 4 cases occurred in a group of 250 with 2 weeks of a move onto a rape crop

Your vet can advise you about the diagnosis and management of these problems in your flock.

9 Feeding lambs rape and kale redgut

Fig 9 Redguts is a common cause of sudden death, associated with a move from poor to highly digestible forage


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