Cyanobacteria blooms on the rise

Due to the region's heat this summer, there has been an increase of cyanobacteria blooms in the area.

Cyanobacteria on a fresh water source. (Contributed photo)

Due to this summer’s blistering heat, the region has seen a rise in cyanobacteria blooms, also known as blue-green algae. The blooms are toxic to livestock who drink the water.

“We have had a warmer than average summer, so we have seen an increase in blooms this season compared to others in the past,” said Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist.

Penny Nester, North Dakota State University Extension agent for Kidder County, said she's heard reports of several people in her area finding cattle dead in areas where the water source was contaminated with blue-green algae. The issues in her area seem most prevalent along the Kidder County-Stutsman County line, squarely in the Prairie Pothole region where many livestock producers rely on potholes for water sources.

There are 14 lakes in the region listed by the Department of Environmental Quality that have an advisory or warning about the algae. There is restricted use and access to those lakes due to the increase in cyanobacteria blooms.

Cyanobacteria blooms are found in water sources that produce high level toxins. The blooms normally appear in still water sources such as wetlands, ponds or lakes. For the bloom to thrive, bacteria must be residing in the water source. Excess nutrients, such as phosphorus or nitrogen, are key for the bacteria to grow.


The blooms can range in looks, but most commonly look like a turquoise painting on the water surface, green scum or even grass clippings floating on the water surface.

For livestock, cyanobacteria is toxic and can lead to death in a span of only 20 minutes. Symptoms can include mucus discharge around the nose, staggering and even photo sensitivity.

“We usually find an animal dead before we know they have ingested the water. Because they die so quickly, they often cannot be treated,” Meehan said.

While it is difficult to treat, there are preventative measures producers can take to protect their herd. However, Meehan suggests taking the long route instead of a quick fix.

“The most important thing is looking into long-term treatments, such as putting in place conservation practices, whether It's reducing erosion off of the fields or limiting the use of tillage. Producers could also incorporate cover crops so they are reducing the amount of nutrients going into water sources,” Meehan said.

Producers can also set up buffers around their livestock’s water source, such as wheat grass or any type of perennial vegetation.

For short-term prevention, there is a treatment that will kill the blooms within the water. However, this treatment still releases the toxins into the water source itself.

“If you use the treatment, there needs to be a delay before you let livestock back into the area, at least two weeks or more. These products also kill water organisms and are toxic to fish and water life. Producers should be careful while using this treatment as well; overuse can be toxic,” Meehan said.


There are also testing strips producers can use to test their livestock’s water source.

If you suspect you have cyanobacteria blooms in your livestock’s water source, remove your herd immediately from the area and collect water to submit to the veterinary diagnostic lab for testing.

For additional information or questions, contact your veterinarian or local Extension agent.

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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