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This article was published in 1950
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Smashes in Sheep and Cattle from Plant Poisoning

F.J. MADDEN, Inspector of Stock, Moss Vale.

The knowledge that is most delightful to others, wrote a philosopher, is that which is given, stamped with one's own nature: one's own knowledge (someone must have written it or his experience would not have lived in perpetuity, as it has done).

That is experience; said to be gleaned and gathered consciously or unconsciously in learning short ways by long wanderings—including, apparently, journeying on stock routes and over travelling stock reserves.

The writer's long experience embraces many memories and impressions of livestock smashes; perhaps the most memorable involving the following:—


One of the most tragic smashes of this century was the catastrophe of October 20, 1907, on Nogabri Reserve; near Gunnedah.

Precisely 585 head of quality Shorthorn-Hereford crossbred 4 and 5-year-old bullocks of a mob of 632 from the North-west arrived by rail at Gunnedah and then moved by road to Nogabri Reserve to camp; and died overnight as a result of eating Variegated Thistle in its most dangerous stage of growth. These cattle were in store condition. Pastures were sparse and the Stock Route eaten out, but a fresh in the Namoi River had provided a good growth of a strip of the thistles. These had grown to about 6 inches in height, and were wilting off when they were revived by a shower of rain. This apparently stimulated and increased the poisonous principle (the nitrate content) in the plant. The ravenous cattle ate the thistle, or what there was of it, so hungrily that possibly the only survivors were the bullocks which happened to miss out in the feast. The shower of rain had fallen so recently that the thistles had been pulled out by the roots, and roots as well as leaves were devoured ravenously by the cattle.

Since those days hundreds of similar cases of Variegated Thistle poisoning have been reported in many districts, but this unquestionably was the greatest of such tragedies.

Recalling other "thistle" smashes, one south of Tamworth in November, 1940, was noteworthy. The season again was dry; with resultant sparse pastures. A mob of 260 cows with 220 young calves at foot were placed, after a day's droving, in a paddock of not more than 10 acres. They were paddocked at dusk and the intention was to feed the cows the following morning. When next morning came, however, 166 of the 260 cows were dead from Variegated Thistle poisoning. The calves were not affected. A storm of 30 points of rain had fallen during the preceding 24 hours: apparently giving the nitrate content of the thistles an upward surge. Yet another case debited to Variegated Thistle was the loss of 155 head of a mob of 500 bullocks from the North. These cattle had not had a drink that day, and they died within half an hour of eating the plants; which they had torn out by the roots and devoured in bulk. Again there was little other feed available; and again rain had fallen within the preceding few hours.


This plant also has been responsible for many spectacular smashes in the North-west. In the first instance that comes to mind the scene again was the Nogabri Reserve. A mob of 2,500 sheep from the Carroll district had camped there; one hundred and seventy (170) were dead, and many affected. Seasonal conditions were average, but Blue Couch was abundant on the river bank.

We saved other affected sheep with subcutaneous injections of sulphuric ether. The drover was given a syringe, and a lesson in using it, and the mob sent on its way. This occurred in November; losses from Variegated Thistle had occurred in October. Almost daily that November came reports of mortality; resulting from feeding on Blue Couch, with its occasional HCN poisoning properties.


Three thousand (3,000) of 6,000 Merino wethers died twenty miles from the Border and the "Adelaide Gate" in the North-west corner of New South Wales. One feed of Phyllanthus lacunarius did it. This weed is known in some places as Warraweena Clover. It is generally suspect and is regarded as particularly poisonous to travelling stock; especially if eaten greedily. Ante-mortem observations show the affected animals to be highly excitable. Post-mortem examination reveals impaction of the fourth stomach; with evidently a paralysis of the alimentary tract.

In 1918 a mob of 450 Shorthorn bullocks arrived at the "Adelaide Gate," were apparently healthy, and were admitted to New South Wales. After two days on the stock route they struck a patch of Phyllanthus; and within two days 120 of these bullocks were dead. Many others were stricken so badly that they had to be spelled for months before they could be moved on. Affected animals displayed excitability to the degree of ferociousness; many going completely beserk. Post-mortems revealed the omasums to be greatly distended by millions of seeds of the plant; these seeds being dry and hard. Again there was evidence that complete paralysis of the alimentary tract had occurred.

Although the Phyllanthus lacunarius was growing in great profusion in the midst of drought conditions, it was remarkable that rabbits would not touch it; though they were found at that time in the Mulga trees where they had climbed in search of bark to eat. Post-mortem examinations of the rabbits did not disclose a seed of the dangerous weed.


Thirty-eight of 58 good dairy cows died on the Dungowan side of Tamworth. They had eaten from the first cut that season of lucerne which contained so much Johnson Grass that it was ruled out for hay and fed to the cattle direct. The cut had been haying for two days and the cattle died within half an hour of eating it. In the spring of that year Johnson Grass had grown prolifically, and many and often were the urgent calls received as a result. In another instance fourteen (14) out of a herd of 40 cows were dead by the time the scene could be reached.

The really dangerous time with this grass is the spring of a good season.


Let us conclude with a story of human interest and some satisfaction. While attending a P.P. Board meeting at Tamworth a girl on the telephone pleaded to speak to the Stock Inspector. The appeal could not be resisted but when she asked me to come out home as a cow was sick the time naturally was thought to be most inopportune. To my amazement, though, when it was explained that a Board meeting was in full session and could not be left to attend a sick cow, she confided that twenty-four cows were down. That was different; vastly different!

Going at full speed for the scene, and following directions received over the phone, the prescribed lane was reached and travelled until signalled into a paddock by a man with an improvised flag. Down the paddock I was "flagged" again by the girl to a scene of utter catastrophe. Twenty-four of a nice herd of 36 dairy cows were down with prussic acid poisoning following a feed of Sudan Grass (SORGHUM SUDANENSE) about a foot high and which had been wilting when it received a shower of rain the previous day. Two of the cows were beyond aid. The remaining twenty-two were treated with injections of sulphuric ether subcutaneously.

Within 30 minutes we had the pleasure of seeing the treated cattle on their feet again. It was very well worth that eight mile dash to see the relief expressed on the faces of that little dairy family.


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