Chris Penrose really had no interest in going to college when he graduated from high school. He was born and raised in Dayton and finished in the bottom third of his class, but spent the summers of his youth (and pretty much every minute he could) on the Morgan County farm his ancestors had purchased from the federal government in 1824. The family farm was his classroom of choice and his favorite teacher was his great-uncle who farmed it at the time.
“It is a rough Appalachian farm not good for much other than forages and forest,” Penrose said. “But when I was 20, I quit my job at Kentucky Fried Chicken and moved to the farm. I took my $1,200 I’d saved and bought some heifers.”
In his work on the farm, Penrose got to know his county Extension agent and see the value of that kind of work. He also saw other incentives to consider furthering his education.
“Eventually, I went to Washington State Community College. The only reason I went is that I would have enough assistance to not only pay for books and tuition, and there would be enough left over to buy a used elevator and cultipacker that I needed,” Penrose said. “But then I found out if I just went to class and listened I could actually do pretty well. Eventually I transferred to Ohio State.”
This led to a career of service in Extension where he has specialized in forages and shale — two important components of the rural southeast Ohio economy. Penrose has worked hard through the years to maintain a balance between his work in Extension and his work on the farm to create a mutually beneficial situation.
“I’ve got some guiding principles. Faith and family are first and my job is second. Any remaining time left is for the farm. If the work doesn’t get done for the farm, it just doesn’t get done,” Penrose said. “I use the farm to come up with topics in my weekly column and other outlets and I even write for a national magazine now. I also use the farm to try different things and make my Extension work better. All but one of my hay fields can be grazed or are stockpiled for fall and winter grazing. I keep about 40 brood cows, some spring calving and some fall calving so I can have a couple of sales per year. I am getting ready to sell some spring calves and finish fall calving. I try to work my farm around my work schedule. If I don’t then I am not following my priorities.”
The on-the-farm daily life for Penrose gives him extra insights into what the farm community in the area may also be experiencing.
“This makes it easier to relate to the clientele I work with. When I am dealing with things like breakouts of pinkeye and managing spotted knapweed on the farm, I try to share my successes and mistakes with everybody so they don’t make those same mistakes,” he said. “I have also used the farm for tours and replicated research trials. I try to use the farm to my advantage in my job and to the advantage of the people I work with.”
That was the case when Penrose found a cow in a ravine that did not quite look right in late September.
“She was resting peacefully down in a ravine and for some reason I decided to get her to move. That’s when I realized something was really wrong,” Penrose said. “She got up but had no balance, like she was really drunk and after 20 minutes of trying to help her, I finally got her up and out of the ravine. She seemed really weak on the legs, especially the back ones. When she laid down, she went on her side with her head on the ground pulled back and legs straight out with some muscle twitching.
“When this happens to one cow, you get very concerned. When it happens to two, you panic. That happened the next morning. The second one was in a bad spot near a cliff and my son and I worked to get her to a soft, shaded, level spot.”
Penrose searched his Extension resources and began talking with others to figure what was happening. As it turned out, it was the mascot of his employer that was to blame.
“After searching for some possible causes and talking with our veterinarian and ruling out many possible problems, we determined it was most likely buckeye poisoning,” Penrose wrote in a recent Ohio BEEF Cattle Letter about his experience. “The first animal got better but I was sure the second one was bad enough to die. Regardless, my veterinarian, Dr. Groah, said not to give up, he’d seen some in really bad shape recover. The next day we tubed the second cow with some water and electrolytes, and gave her a laxative to help pass the poison, and she got up later that day. I thought we were out of the woods but we had another case over the weekend and that cow almost drowned in the creek due to her lack of coordination, but is now better.”
Though there are buckeye trees in and near the pastures on the property (particularly in the fencerows), Penrose has never encountered a problem with buckeye poisoning before.
Since he first found the problem on his farm, he has heard other reports in the area of similar problems.
“To date, a neighbor has had a similar experience with one of his cows, and each of the four cows appear to be recovering,” Penrose wrote. “According to A Guide to Plant Poisoning of Animals in North America (2001), the principle toxins are the glycosides aesculin and fraxin, and possibly a narcotic alkaloid. Animals develop signs of poisoning 16 hours after consuming toxic quantities. As little as 0.5% body weight of the animal can produce severe poisoning.
“I am not aware of any specific therapy for buckeye poisoning, but laxatives may be given to remove the ingested plant parts as fast as possible, and if the animal is down for an extended period, keeping the cow hydrated is important. Unfortunately, I have buckeye trees in every paddock so I will have to keep a close eye on the cows for a while and try to figure out what the long term solution will be to prevent this from happening again.”
Because he was able to discover and diagnose the problem on his own farm, Penrose was able to quickly get the word out about the seemingly increased potential for buckeye poisoning this fall. Within days he had information about the issue in the local newspaper and online in the BEEF Letter.
The buckeye is typically thought of as more of a risk for livestock (including sheep and goats) in the spring from new leaves and shoots of the early-leafing buckeye trees, but the problems this fall all closely coincided with the autumn nut drop.
“There were three animals total for me that were affected and I have heard about at least a half a dozen other people seeing other similar cases in the county,” he said. “Over the years I have heard reports of this but I have never seen or heard of a breakout like we have seen here. In over 40 years of raising cattle, this is the first time I have had it on the farm. Maybe we are getting more buckeye trees. All parts of the buckeye tree are toxic but I think this year’s nut crop is large, at least in this area, and that is why we may be seeing so many more problems with this around here.”
The buckeye is just one of several plants that can be very poisonous to livestock. Wilted wild cherry leaves, trimmed branches of ornamental yew, frosted forages, and rhubarb leaves (among others) can all be deadly for ruminants and autumn can create opportunities for ingestion.