Low Dairy Cow Conception Rate? Consider Zearalenone's Role

In Brief

  • Zearalenone, a field mycotoxin, binds to estrogen receptors and causes hormonal imbalances.
  • Ruminal microbiota can increase zearalenone’s estrogenic effects.
  • The endocrine disruption caused by zearalenone leads to reproduction failure, resulting in considerable economic losses for dairy farms.

According to the most recent 2023 North America corn crop mycotoxin survey from dsm-firmenich, 76% of the samples tested positive for Zearalenone. Its effects can impair reproduction and cause spontaneous abortions, resulting in enormous economic losses to dairy producers. Here's how to recognize the effects of zearalenone in dairy cattle.

When addressing mycotoxins on dairy farms it is common to focus on the direct losses in production and health status. With zearalenone, the worries are different: since it has a very similar structure to estrogen, zearalenone can bind to the receptors located in distinct areas of the body and cause delays in reproduction, spontaneous abortions, ovarian cysts and other reproductive challenges.

Normal concentrations of estrogen on a healthy cow

Estrogen prepares the reproductive organs of the cow for breeding and influences behavior that encourages mating. During the estrous cycle, estrogen concentration remains low and stable until the estrus (aka heat), when it increases abruptly. A normal estrus lasts one day and once it is passed, if no oocyte is fertilized, the concentration of estrogen resides again. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Hormonal fluctuations along the estrus cycle. (adapted from Senger (2003).

Degradation in the rumen... is it for good or for bad?

When zearalenone is ingested and reaches the rumen, microbes can transform the molecule but this change does not result in an actual detoxification. The two main resulting molecules of this metabolic process are α-zearalenol (α-ZEL) and β-zearalenol (β-ZEL) which can be 60 or 0.2 times as estrogenic (respectively), with the biggest portion becomes α-ZEL (figure 2, Gruber-Dorninger et al., 2021). This means that zearalenone’s estrogenicity is heavily increased, resulting on even bigger hormonal unbalances in animals.

Figure 2. In vivo degradation of zearalenone in rumen cannulated dairy cows (Gruber-Dorninger et al., 2021)

Effects of zearalenone contamination in cows

During an experiment by Mahmoud et al. (2014) two different levels of mycotoxin contamination in the diet were evaluated: 200ppb ZEN, ppb AfB1 and 400 ppb ZEN, ppb AfB1. The two treatments were provided to Holstein dairy cows from calving and blood samples were taken at day 45 postpartum. This trial helps elucidate quite clearly what the effects of zearalenone on the diet of a dairy cow.

Endocrine Disruption:

Figure 3. Changes in concentration of main reproductive hormones when two different zearalenone treatments were fed to Holstein dairy cows.

The first clear effect of a change on zearalenone contamination in the diet is that all the concentrations of hormones in blood (such as estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone, T3, T4 and prolactin) were affected significantly by the treatment. The cow has a normal level of estrogen that would naturally increase only right before estrus. If zearalenone is on circulation binding with receptors of estrogen, this alters the natural concentration of other hormones. This hormonal imbalance can result in unsuccessful reproduction, lack of response to hormonal treatments for artificial insemination, as well as false heats.

Increased risk of miscarriage

The increase of zearalenone in the diet resulted in a reduction of progesterone, also known as the “pregnancy hormone” because it ensures the physiological conditions are right to keep the embryo. In Figure 1 it can be observed how estrogen and progesterone regulate each other, when estrogen is high, progesterone is lower, and the opposite.  Thus, having any increase of zearalenone, which will behave like estrogen, can result in the decrease of progesterone levels, thereby losing the conditions to keep the embryo and increasing the likelihood of a spontaneous abortion.

Figure 4. Graphic comparison between a normal ovary with successful ovulation with a polycystic ovary without possibility to ovulate.

Economic impact

Any sort of delay in the reproduction of dairy cows is a great economic concern. According to different authors (De Vries, 2006; Eicker & Fetrow, 2003; Hovingh, 2009), the cost of a cow spontaneously aborting can be 550-1200 USD, and every extra open day costs 5.20-6 USD (Cabrera, 2014). Additionally, breeding problems are one of the top reasons for cow replacement. A cow that takes longer to become pregnant has a 75% higher possibility of being culled (Cabrera, 2014).


When addressing poor reproductive efficiency in a dairy farm, it is essential to ensure that mycotoxins are not the limiting factor to reach reproductive potential. Once this burden has been removed, other strategies to promote successful reproduction can be implemented.

Considering the economics of cow reproduction, zearalenone can represent relevant losses if not addressed properly. A deactivation strategy for zearalenone is necessary in order to ensure an adequate hormonal balance and successful reproduction.


  1. Bloomquist, C., Davidson, J. N., & Pearson, E. G. (1982). Zearalenone toxicosis in prepubertal dairy heifers. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
  2. Cabrera, V. E. (2014). Economics of fertility in high-yielding dairy cows on confined TMR systems. Animal8(s1), 211–221.
  3. Coppock, R. W., Mostrom, M. S., Sparling, C. G., Jacobsen, B., & Ross, S. C. (1990). Apparent zearalenone intoxication in a dairy herd from feeding spoiled acid-treated corn. Veterinary and Human Toxicology32(3), 246–248.
  4. De Vries, A. (2006). Economic value of pregnancy in dairy cattle. Journal of Dairy Science89(10), 3876–3885.
  5. Eicker, S., & Fetrow, J. (2003). New tools for deciding when to replace used dairy cows. Proc. Kentucky Dairy Conf., Cave City, KY. Univ. Kentucky, Lexington, 33–46.
  6. Fushimi, Y., Takagi, M., Hasunuma, H., Uno, S., Kokushi, E., Watanabe, U., Liu, J., Marey, M. A., Miyamoto, A., & Otoi, T. (2014). Application of mycotoxin adsorbent to cattle feed contaminated with zearalenone: Urinary zearalenone excretion and association with anti-Müllerian hormone. World Mycotoxin Journal7(3), 367–378.
  7. Fushimi, Y., Takagi, M., Monniaux, D., Uno, S., Kokushi, E., Shinya, U., Kawashima, C., Otoi, T., Deguchi, E., & Fink‐Gremmels, J. (2015). Effects of Dietary Contamination by Zearalenone and Its Metabolites on Serum Anti‐Müllerian Hormone: Impact on the Reproductive Performance of Breeding Cows. Reproduction in Domestic Animals50(5), 834–839.
  8. Hovingh, E. (2009). Abortions in dairy cattle I: Common causes of abortions.
  9. Kallela, K., & Ettala, E. (1984). The oestrogenic Fusarium toxin (zearalenone) in hay as a cause of early abortions in the cow. Nordisk Veterinaermedicin36(9–10), 305–309.
  10. Mahmoud, M. A., Ta, G., Leil, A. Z., & Mz, A. E. (2013). Effect of mycotoxin on reproductive performance in dairy cattle. Assiut Vet Med J59, 203–213.
  11. Senger, P. L. (2003). Pathways to pregnancy and parturition. Current Conceptions. Inc. Pullman, WA, 144.
  12. Weaver, G. A., Kurtz, H. J., Behrens, J. C., Robison, T. S., Seguin, B. E., Bates, F. Y., & Mirocha, C. J. (1986). Effect of zearalenone on the fertility of virgin dairy heifers. American Journal of Veterinary Research47(6), 1395.

Published on

18 March 2024


  • Ruminants
  • Mycotoxins

Related Articles

  • The Dairy Podcast: Corwin Holtz – Mycotoxins in Dairy Management

    The Dairy Podcast: Corwin Holtz – Mycotoxins in Dairy Management

    18 Mar 2024

    In this episode of The Dairy Podcast Show, we're privileged to have Corwin Holtz, a distinguished figure in dairy consulting, touching upon the evolution of the dairy industry, ruminant nutrition, and the pivotal role of mycotoxins in dairy management. Corwin's vast experience and strategic approach toward addressing mycotoxins, coupled with his emphasis on herd health and profitability, make this episode a treasure trove of knowledge for dairy professionals. Tune in to glean valuable wisdom from Corwin's illustrious career and practical advice for navigating the complexities of dairy farming.

  • Mycotoxins Effects on Feedlot Cattle Performance

    Mycotoxins Effects on Feedlot Cattle Performance

    18 Sep 2023

    Evaluating the negative effects associated with mycotoxins on feedlot performance and health needs further investigation. In general, it is widely believed that feedlot animals are more resistant to development of mycotoxicosis compared to other species due to natural deactivation properties in the rumen. Research in both dairy and beef have shown that while ruminants are able to consume a higher concentration of mycotoxins compared to other livestock species such as swine and poultry, cattle are not any less susceptible to negative effects on health and performance from mycotoxins.

  • Trichothecenes: A Complex Mycotoxin Causing Complex Issues in Cattle

    Trichothecenes: A Complex Mycotoxin Causing Complex Issues in Cattle

    15 May 2023

    Trichothecenes are a large family of mycotoxins that are produced by various species of Fusarium molds that are believed to be produced after stress conditions followed by wet weather during flowering. Most often, trichothecenes occur in field conditions prior to harvest and have been found in cereal grains, silages, by-product, dry hay, pasture grasses and other sources of feedstuffs, making trichothecenes one of the most common mycotoxins identified in cattle feeds.


You are being redirected.

We detected that you are visitng this page from United States. Therefore we are redirecting you to the localized version.