Certain Maple Tree Seeds Can Kill Horses
Q: Our sidewalks here in California are black with the ash from nearby fires. I’ve found information about air quality’s impact on lungs, but what about the quality of or dangers inherent in pasture grasses where ash has settled? Is it harmful for horses to consume? How does it taste? Is it bitter? We can substitute feeding hay in the barn for just so long, and it won’t rain until October at best. Help!

A: This is a great question given how many horse owners in the Western states are finding themselves dealing with ash in their horses’ environment. I have a number of friends in Northern California and Oregon who are reporting a blanket of ash over the plants in their yards, and obviously this ash is also accumulating on pastures and stacks of hay and around the barns where horses are kept. Many of us have read the warnings about looking after our horses’ lung health during the poor air quality these wild fires cause; however, the question remains, is it safe for horses to graze pastures or other forages that might result in the consumption of ash?

Thankfully, researchers associated with the University of California, Davis, took the initiative to study ash’s impact on forages fed to livestock during the Camp Fire in 2018. They looked at 26 irrigated pastures, 20 haystacks, and 15 corn silage piles. These forages were located throughout California; some were impacted by wildfire smoke and ash while others were not. Researchers analyzed all samples for various heavy metals and minerals, as well as a large number of organic compounds such as pesticides, environmental contaminants, drugs, and other natural products.

The researchers found that minerals such as iron, zinc, and manganese varied by forage source but not by the presence of ash. Copper was higher in fields not affected by ash. They identified some organic compounds of interest, such as caffeine in pasture and ethoprophos (an insecticide) in pasture and hay. However, none of the organic compounds identified were associated with forage type or geographic region. It’s possible they were either naturally occurring compounds in the plants being analyzed or legacy chemicals (residues from a previous point in time). The samples containing these compounds were randomly distributed, meaning they weren’t all from wildfire-impacted areas. Therefore, the researchers did not believe they were the result of smoke and ash.

The research team noted that more detailed and controlled studies are needed, but these initial indications suggest forages affected by wildfire ash are likely safe for livestock consumption. If you’re concerned about feeding horses forages with ash deposits, however, they said you can limit ash consumption by diluting the intake with unaffected forages. For example, only allow limited access to grazing.

Another good reason to limit access to grazing near wildfires is that horses will breath in particulates that have settled on the plants while eating, and this can negatively impact lung health. If possible, wet areas with a lawn sprinkler before turning horses out, so settled particles are less breathable.

Some owners have raised concerns that adding water to fallen ash could result in the formation of lye, which is a highly caustic substance. While lye is made from wood ash, ash from the softwood species and scrub burning in these wildfires is unlikely to contain enough potassium carbonate to form lye.