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Agricultural Review

Farmers urged to test all forage; abnormally high nitrate levels found

Exceptionally high levels of nitrates in various types of forages are being found in samples submitted to the state food and drug laboratory, meaning that farmers and other livestock producers should have forage crops tested to keep their livestock safe, said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

The lab has come across abnormally high results in more than a sixth of submitted samples, with results being up to four times higher than what is normally considered dangerous. These levels can make the feed fatal for farm animals.

“Farmers have a lot invested in their livestock and it is critical they test these types of feed to protect their investment,” Troxler said. “In 2002, the year of the last severe drought in the state, we saw a spike in animal deaths from high nitrate levels in feeds. We don’t want a repeat of that.”

Many baled and fresh-cut forage crops such as corn, grain, grasses and sorghum harvested during last summer’s drought have high nitrate levels, which poses the greatest risk for ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats. Although not as sensitive, horses can also be affected. The issue is becoming more critical as drought conditions continue across the state with seemingly no relief in sight.

Fermenting silage for a month may greatly decrease nitrate levels. Diluting forage with lower-level nitrate feeds may subdue symptoms if the actual levels of nitrate toxicity are known. If nitrates are too high, the feed should be destroyed. Farmers are encouraged to contact their local extension agents for assistance with diluting rations, the fermenting process or for more information.

Symptoms of nitrate poisoning usually appear quickly. These symptoms range from respiratory distress, weak or rapid heartbeat, below normal body temperature, staggering gait, poor muscle coordination, pupil dilation and bluish membranes around the eyes and nose. High nitrate levels may also cause decreased milk production, decreased weight gain and an increase in stillborn births and abortions. Nitrate levels that reach a toxic level can cause death within two hours of consumption.

Nitrates are often found in baled hay that was recently purchased or hay that was harvested in the field but not previously tested. Baled hay should be probed for accurate results. If harvested, representative samples from each field should be sent in; about 20 samples or a 20 percent representation of each field is adequate. Livestock owners should contact their local veterinarians with questions about management and feeding, as well as advice about sick animals. If any of the symptoms are suspected, farmers are urged to send forage samples to NCDA&CS for nitrates testing, which is free of charge.

“Nitrate testing is on the rise this year and we have seen unusually high levels in hay including non-nitrate accumulators, such as Bermuda grass or fescue, from every part of the state,” said Jennifer Godwin, feed administrator for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Food & Drug Protection Division. “Testing is free, quick, easy and the best method of prevention available to farmers during this tough drought season.”

Farmers can also submit samples to the Farm Feed Forage Testing Service, which analyzes samples so that rations may be balanced for efficient production. A $10 fee is required for each sample for this additional testing.

Send samples to the Food and Drug Protection Division’s Constable Laboratory, 4000 Reedy Creek Rd., Raleigh, NC 27607, or hand-deliver them to the same address. Farmers will be alerted within two working days after receiving the forage if levels are too high. For more information, contact Godwin at (919) 733-7366 or by e-mail at

NCDA&CS Public Affairs Division, Andrea Ashby, Director
Mailing Address:1001 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1001
Physical Address: 2 West Edenton Street, Raleigh NC 27601
Phone: (919) 707-3001; FAX: (919) 733-5047

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