As a livestock agent with UF/IFAS Lake County Extension, I field a lot of questions about pasture weeds. Our warm climate and long growing season leave Florida pastures vulnerable to both native and invasive weed species. In fact, weeds in pastures cost ranchers in excess of $180 million annually. Weeds reduce available grazing area, have a negative impact on the yield of hay fields, and toxic weeds can pose a direct threat to the health of grazing animals.
By and large, toxic weeds are not palatable to grazing animals; and if they have an abundance of forage to graze, they will typically avoid consuming them. However, when forage quality or quantity is on the decline, toxic weeds may become more appealing as hungry animals seek out alternative sources of nutrition. Some individual animals are also just naturally curious, and even when well fed, will explore their environment using their mouths and may inadvertently eat something dangerous. As a youth, I had a gelding that was just always into something. His mischievous nature got him into a pickle more than once. Most of his escapades were harmless but he was not always so lucky. In fact, my naughty gelding nearly lost his life when he decided to taste some black nightshade that was growing (unbeknownst to me) behind a water trough in his paddock. A sudden onset of lethargy combined with head pressing and ataxia alerted me to a problem and I was able to get the vet out post haste. With supportive care my gelding survived his run in with nightshade and we were blessed with another fifteen years of his antics.
Of course, livestock are not the only animals susceptible to falling ill from consuming toxic plants. Our dogs and cats can also suffer if they select the wrong snack. A number of common house and landscape plants such as lilies, azaleas, and tulips can be dangerous to our pets. The sago palm, a popular landscaping plant in this area, is especially dangerous to dogs that may be drawn by its scent to consume it. If you pet has a tendency to nibble plants, you may want to take this opportunity to inventory what you are growing and assure that his or her tasting habit won’t result in a big vet bill.
When it comes to poisonous plants, what you don’t know could hurt your animals. It is important that animal owners learn to identify toxic plants in their pastures, yards, and houses so they might take steps to prevent and eradicate them. I maintain a long list of common poisonous plants found in Central Florida pastures that I am happy to share with anyone interested. Additionally, the UF/IFAS Lake County Extension office in Tavares has a Master Gardener Plant Clinic (open M-F, 9am to 4pm) that is staffed by volunteers who can help identify questionable plants.