Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fatal Attraction: Hardware Disease in Cattle

Opposites attract, or so the old adage goes.  In the movie "Fatal Attraction," a man's extra-marital attraction and affair lead to tragic consequences.  

On a farm, cattle might seem to have an attraction for eating things that can actually be fatal to them.  Along with their grass and hay, they have been known to swallow barbed wire, baling wire, nails, screws and various  bits of plastic.  These things can cause serious harm and result in a condition known as "hardware disease."

(See the previous post Tum! Tum! Tum! Tum! How Many Stomachs Does a Cow Have? for an explanation of how cows eat and how their digestive system works.)

Here is an excerpt from an article entitled "Hardware Disease," by Sam Barringer, D.V.M., of West Virginia University Extension Service.
"My mother always told me to stop eating like a pig. In fact, my eating pattern most closely resembled that of a cow. Cattle take large mouthfuls of food and often swallow without any chewing. This indiscriminate eating pattern predisposes cattle to a disorder commonly called hardware disease. If you have cattle eventually one of them will experience this disease.


Hardware disease is caused when a bovine ingests a relatively heavy and sharp object. The object falls to the floor of the rumen and is pushed forward into the reticulum. The reticulum is one of the compartments in the bovine stomach, and its function is not well understood. However, the contractions of the reticulum force the object into the peritoneal cavity where it initiates inflammation."

Dr. Barringer goes on to enumerate some of the signs of hardware disease, although he writes that it is often impossible to be 100% sure of a diagnosis.
  • Signs of pain such as standing with an arched back, reluctance to walk or moving with a slow, careful gait.
  • Grunting when the animal walks, stands up or lies down.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Shallow, rapid respirations.
  • Decrease in milk production.
  • Bloat, particularly if the hardware has irritate the vagus nerve which is responsible for contractions in the rumen.
  • An obvious pulse in the jugular groove.
Hardware disease is very serious and can lead to death or euthanizing the animal, sometimes despite the best treatment.  Treatment involves giving a broad spectrum antibiotic, limiting the movement of the cow, and possibly surgical removal of the object.  One final element of the treatment is also one of the best preventive methods that can be used:  Feeding the cow a magnet!

After having heard several horror stories from other cattle owners who lost animals to hardware disease, I made an appointment for our vet to come give magnets to our three girls.  

Here are the three magnets.

They are about the size of my pinky.

We're the only Dexter clients of our vet, Dr. Weldon, and his only non-beef clients.  All the local cattle operations raise beef cattle with minimal handling of the animals, compared with the intensive handling in dairy operations where the use of magnets is quite common.  Dr. Weldon said that normally he would use either a vaginal speculum or a bolus gun (above left) to administer the magnets, but since he had a balling gun (above right) in his truck, he preferred to use it on our little girls.

Here is 6-month old Macree getting her magnet.  You can see how much she loved it!  How do you say "It's for your own good?" in cow?

Dr. Weldon gave me a tip when using a balling gun (although I have no intentions of trying this operation myself!)  He said to never insert your thumb and fingers into the holes of the balling gun even though it looks like it's designed to work that way.  He warned that you can get a finger badly injured if a cow twists her head with your fingers trapped in the rings.  Insert the balling gun with your whole hand, and once it's in place, slap it in with the palm of your hand.

It sounds easy, right?  Well, take a look at these photos of Siobhan getting her magnet!  (It was Dr. Weldon's choice to do it by himself.  Please don't think I abandoned him just to get these photos!)

Oops, not up the nostril!

Not that nostril, either!

Now we're getting somewhere!

Down the hatch!

I'm glad to say that at least sweet Ebony lived up to the Dexter reputation of being easy to handle and hopefully redeemed the breed a bit in Dr. Weldon's eyes, even if she didn't give me any interesting photo ops!

The purpose of giving magnets to our cows is that the magnet will drop into the reticulum and stay put, where it will attract any metal objects and hold them there.  Without the magnets, contractions of the reticulum could push the metal objects through the wall of the reticulum and into surrounding organs like the heart, diaphragm, spleen or liver, causing serious complications.  Believe it or not, the magnets can actually be recovered when an animal is butchered--and they can be used again.

In closing, let me say that giving magnets preventively is merely a precaution.  The BEST preventive measure is to keep the farm clean!  The hay we buy is baled with twine, not baling wire.  As we prepare to put new fence in, we carefully cut and remove all the old barbed wire along with any other trash we find.  As we walk around, we routinely pick up shotgun shells, pieces of glass and bits of wire that we find left from previous owners of our land.

I would like to thank the Dexter breeders who have shared their tragic experiences with hardware disease on public forums as a help to other breeders who, like themselves, had never heard of it.  They first learned about it when it struck their beloved cows, but they want to make sure the rest of us don't suffer a similar loss.  Thank you all, and your point is well taken:  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Macree thanks you.  Siobhan thanks you.  Ebony thanks you.  And I thank you!


  1. Good and very informative post Susan. We may need to do the same to our cattle, at least the first ones on the property. Then after that first group will have eaten most of the metal laying around. Good advise about keeping your property clean of metal, and if you put in new fencing make sure you find and pick up the staples that fall when you try and hammer them into the fence post.

    1. Thank you, Gordon. This is one I'm glad to be sharing without having experienced it personally! This fencing will be almost exclusively with T-posts and cattle panels because it's on a tree line, and those little wire clips are just as dangerous!

  2. Fantastic Post! The part about keeping the farm clean is always a struggle. Folks can bring things in on the bottom of their boots or the tires of their cars. But we do what we can don't we? great photos. Tell your vet many thanks!

    1. Thank you, Donna. Yes, things get tracked in and I swear they work their way up from underground. I'm constantly finding old metal bits of farm equipment and such. I'll pass the word on to my vet! I'm sure he'll be glad to know that all that cow wrestling was appreciated! :D


I LOVE comments so please take a minute and let me know you were here! Sorry I have to use Captcha, but I hope you'll comment anyway! Comments make my day! :)