Drought: Goats die after eating wild cucumbers

The prominent topic of discussion at the moment is still the disastrous drought that is facing our country. Most of the veterinary consultation, personal or phone calls, are about “what do we do to salvage our animals during these tough times”. On the streets the discussions are full of worries. “What is the government going to do to help the farmers out?”  We have already discussed how to manage drought affected animals in a previous article. In the article titled “What happened to the rain” we aired that you should be the tough that gets going when the going seems to be getting tough. But it seems that when some farmers are trying to be the tough, they go to extreme and end up feeding animals the wrong things.
Such a case was when a farmer who is an old lady fed her goats in desperation the wild cucumber (doringkomkommertjie )(Afr.) wild gherkin (Eng.)) plant. Because there was no grazing she kept the goats in a kraal and fed what was available from her weeds in the mahangu field.  To her dismay, the next morning she found 12 of her 13 goats dead.  Fortunately the kids survived, probably because they were too young to browse and were only nursing at the time.
The common signs in the dead goats were bleeding from the nose and mouth, (anthrax was eliminated) and bloated stomach.  On post-mortem after opening the carcasses, they all had loose stool in the rumen (big stomach) and intestines. The plant contains the toxin cucumin which among others causes acute infection of the intestines (enteritis).
The wild cucumber (Cucumis africanus) has fruits that look like small, prickly and striped cucumbers. The plant is indigenous to Africa and occurs commonly in Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. The flowers and fruits are seen mostly in March.
Despite the wild cucumber being poisonous especially when eaten in large quantities, the plant has also been used as an animal medicine especially in livestock with constipation. Similarly, the indigenous people used the whole plant as traditional medicine as an enema or emetic. Apparently, in rural areas in the olden days people also used to eat the fresh young leaves as a pot herb.
But it’s a pity that knowledge of animal nutrition is lacking or not fully utilised in rural villages these days.  And because of desperation to save our precious animals from succumbing to drought we scrabble for any plant or wild fruit as diet for animals. Most village farmers had an encounter with the toxic plant gifblaar (otjikuryoma). Therefore they know the dangers associated with the plant, both on cattle and goats. As a result they protect their animals from roaming in areas where gifblaar is dominant. But as for most other poisonous plants, we still need to get to grip with that information.
From the local products, goats and sheep love eating the tree pods especially from the acacia trees such as the camel thorn “kameeldoringboom”, “omumbonde”. You can crush these pods and mix with maize  or mahangu (sorghum) and for an extra energy you can sprinkle the mixture with molasses. By-products from the brewery are also a cheaper good source of alternative feeds for livestock. Sunflower meal is also a good source of energy and fat and can be crushed and given to small stock. Other source of fat is fish oil, poultry fat or even your over used kitchen fat or from restaurants will help your animals to maintain body condition during these tough times.  However, fat should only be given in small amounts, less than 1/10 of the total diet.
Veterinarians, nutritionists, elders and traditional nutritionists are therefore called upon to teach and warn farmers about dangerous poisonous plants, seeds or feed during these trying times. The tricky part is that such plants are widely geographically dispersed, they occur in much of the country and they are the ones that still remains green when other plants have yellowed already.
Even though prevention should have been difficult, animals have learned over time to stay away from feeding naturally on most dangerous plants. However, if the animals are confined to an area and such plants are introduced by farmers as feed, they will munch on it out of desperation for survival. As a case with the farmer above who lost her animals in the same condition.
The nation is at war with drought and we have to win this war, aren’t we the land of the brave? Didn’t we recently celebrate our victory against the dark forces of colonialism just last week? I therefore call upon every farmer to strengthen every muscle in their body and mind and be cautiously innovative to come up with some survival mechanism for their animals. Cautiously hereby refer to seeking information from others when you are about to introduce a new feed to your animals to adapt to this year’s drought condition.