Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Research Assistant Jamie Morgan and Graduate Research Assistant Brittany Trushel both of UGA treat a pond with an algicide called Cutrine-Plus after taking water and fish samples on June 19. A blue-green algae called cyanobacteriu has killed four cows on Bill Atkinson's cattle farm in Dacula.
DACULA -- Researchers have determined that a toxic algae bloom was to blame in the death of four cows on a local cattle farmer's property, and the deadly muck was found in at least one other pond less than 10 miles from the site.
Toxicologists said all livestock breeders should be vigilant about any pond water that appears discolored or opaque.
"Pond owners should be mindful of the risks associated with toxic algae and take proper management steps to prevent or lessen the formation of an algae bloom," said Rebecca Haynie, a toxicologist with the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. "However, there are numerous species of common algae in the Southeast that are capable of producing toxin. Just because you have a bloom doesn't mean you have something toxic in the water."
Haynie and associates were studying pond water on the cattle farm of Dacula resident Bill Atkinson, where a blue-green algae called cyanobacterium killed four cows. Researchers took water and fish samples from the pond and treated it with algicide to alleviate the bloom.
According to researchers, warmer-than-average temperatures and drought led to increased water clarity and an influx of nutrients from the surrounding pasture, which created "the perfect storm of conditions" for an algae bloom.
Researchers said color changes in a pond can be a clue to farmers or pond owners that a bloom has occurred. Bright green water or water with a pea soup-like surface scum should be avoided, and special care should be taken to keep pets and children away.
Atkinson said that was his chief worry. "My concern is these kids that are out fishing on nearby ponds and lakes," Atkinson said. "If they're fishing in a pond with this kind of algae and the fish have been infected by it, I'm hoping it doesn't hurt the kids."
Pond owners who think they might have a toxic algae bloom can purchase algicide products from feed supply stores, Haynie said. Those who purchase the products, however, should pay close attention to the labeling because copper-based algicides can kill fish and other wildlife.
To prevent blooms, pond owners can leave vegetated buffers around the pond, limit livestock access and avoid over-fertilizing the surrounding areas.
Atkinson, the Dacula cattle farmer, has completely fenced his cattle off from the pond and is pumping water to a trough to remedy the situation.
Atkinson said he has let his cattle graze in the pasture near the pond and drink the water in it for more than 40 years without any problem until last month, when his first heifer died, followed by the death of three other cows throughout May and early June.
The Dacula man estimates that he's lost close to $40,000 in beef cattle.
Atkinson contacted Lawton Stewart, a cooperative extension animal scientist with UGA.
"These toxins can be fatal if ingested in high quantities," Stewart said. "Diagnosis may be difficult because the symptoms may easily be mistaken for other disorders more commonly observed in cattle, so a thorough evaluation of the farm is essential to rule out other causes."
Lee Jones, with the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, said he has received other recent reports of livestock found dead near shallow ponds. Algae blooms are the suspected cause. Jones said toxin levels may vary, and toxicity depends on the amount of water ingested.
There are three types of toxins: neural, liver and a skin toxin that can cause a severe rash and itch.
The liver toxins suspected of killing Atkinson's cows, "usually do not cause sudden death," Jones said. "Sometimes the animal may have colic symptoms like abdominal cramps, excessive drooling, loss of appetite and lethargy."
Jones recommended that pond owners contact their veterinarian if they suspect pets or livestock have ingested toxic water.
For more information, pond owners can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Other questions can be directed to the Gwinnett County Extension Office at 678 377-4010, or by visiting www.caes.uga.edu/extension/gwinnett.