Going on Offense Against "Mean Seeds"

Author: David H. Hopkins, AKC Delegate for the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Club of Illinois

In early September, the AKC Canine Health Foundation approved a grant request submitted by Professor William K. Lauenroth of the University of Wyoming for a proposed study entitled “Assessment of CRP Plantings of Grasses with Barbed Seeds.”  This approval, in the form of a so-called “ACORN Grant,” constitutes a major step forward in addressing the escalation in recent years of illnesses (and sometimes fatalities) in dogs, generally viewed as attributable to infections resulting from barbed grass awns.

Professor Lauenroth’s study is to be carried out over a 3-4 months period, commencing in October, 2010.  It will entail a systematic effort to compile information from veterinary teaching centers in ten states (from the wheat and corn belts) and from federal and state agencies administrating Conservation Reserve Program (“CRP”) lands.  The study is more specifically described in Professor Lauenroth’s “abstract” of his proposal, as follows:

“In the sporting dog world, there appears to have been a dramatic escalation in recent years in the incidence of illnesses (and, sometimes, fatalities) due to infections attributable to barbed grass awns.  Once in a dog’s body, a barbed seed typically migrates, all too frequently leaving a trail of infection.  Various species entail these barbed seeds, including “Canadian Wild Rye” and “Virginia Rye.”

“A common view is that the escalation in these illnesses is attributable, in whole or in part, to inclusion of problematic plants in the approved lists for CRP lands.  This view, in turn, is at the core of the proposed study.  If it can be determined from available data that, in fact, there has been a dramatic increase in the overall quantity of barbed seeds now being planted, such determination would surely factor significantly into improvements in veterinary diagnostic and treatment protocols, overall education for dog owners, and preventative or remedial measures for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approach to CRP plantings.

“The contemplated study would start with a determination of a definitive list of the problematic seeds and then with research designed to compile data, primarily from governmental and veterinary sources.  The work would be carried out by students under the direction of the principal investigator.  At a future date, one or more students might possibly visit regional governmental offices to sample documents relative to particular CRP contracts, but such site visits are beyond the scope of the initial phase of the proposed study.”

Further background information is available from the Springer Spaniel Parent Club’s website (www.essfta.org), as well as from a predecessor article in the September, 2008 Perspectives issue entitled The Challenge of Canadian Rye and Other "Mean Seeds."

Professor Lauenroth has his Ph.D. from Colorado State University, specializes in range science and management, has carried out numerous ecosystem research projects over the past 35-plus years, has written scores of articles, and is a member of numerous professional organizations in his field (including the Ecological Society of America, International Association for Vegetation Science, and the Society for Range Management).  In addition, Professor Lauenroth is a retriever field trialer, so he also “brings to the table” a “dog person’s” insights.  Indeed, he was originally suggested to the Delegates Field Trial and Hunting Test Events Committee (“Field Events Committee”) in March, 2010, by his fellow Labrador fancier and Delegate, John Russell.

Since March, 2010, there has been a real team effort playing out.  It started with the initial communications with Professor Lauenroth to determine his willingness to head up the proposed study and with the AKC Humane Fund to request establishment of a sub-fund, so that there could be a recipient fund at a Section 501(c)(3) entity to receive contributions restricted to grass awns research.  Within a week of the Field Events Committee’s request in March, the Humane Fund’s Board approved it; and Committee members then solicited contributions for the newly-established “Mean Seeds Sub-Fund.”  Donations swiftly arrived; and, by July, Professor Lauenroth’s grant proposal was submitted to the AKCCHF, buttressed with a substantial pledge from the AKC Humane Fund (payable entirely out of the new sub-fund).  On a small scale, this team effort illustrates how the AKC, its affiliates, Delegates, and local and parent clubs can collaboratively “get things done.”

The above excerpt from Professor Lauenroth’s grant proposal notes the common view that the escalation in recent years in illnesses in dogs (seemingly attributable to barbed grass awns) is the result, in whole or in part, to substantial increases in the quantities of the “mean seeds” actually being planted in CRP lands.  The view, in turn, is based on the facts that a number of “mean seeds” are part and parcel of approved CRP seed mixtures, whenever so-called “cover plants” are needed, and that such species as Canadian Wild Rye and Virginia Wild Rye are often the least expensive cover plant alternatives for the CRP landowner.  This cost factor surely has encouraged selection of such cover plants by countless landowners who are simply unaware of the dangers.  In all events, Professor Lauenroth’s study is surely a “no lose” endeavor; it should either lead to confirmation of the foregoing view or a refutation of it (in which case the focus must shift to other theoretically possible explanations for the escalation of illnesses with dogs).

The above excerpt from the grant proposal starts with a reference to the “sporting dog world.”  It should be borne in mind, though, that all dogs (and probably other species, too) are at risk in terms of barbed grass awns.  Indeed, sightings of Canadian Wild Rye in land adjacent to highway rest stops have been reported.

As to what each individual Delegate can do to help, consider the following:

  • Duplicate this article and distribute to your Club’s members, together with the warning:  “ALL PETS ARE AT RISK!”
  • If you are, or become, aware of a fancier whose dog has been confirmed (by a veterinarian) as a victim of an illness attributable to a barbed grass awn, communicate with a Field Events Committee member so that there can be exploration of the instance becoming a “case study” for the groups working together on the current initiatives.
  • Make a monetary contribution to the AKC Humane Fund’s “Mean Seeds Sub-Fund.”

As to results of Professor Lauenroth’s study, the Field Events Committee will keep the Delegate Body advised.

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