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.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Bloat in Cattle: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure!

This is another one of those posts that will hopefully help someone learn from our mistakes.  We've had cattle for almost four and a half years now, and bloat has just recently come on my horizon.  We've been very lucky, and we've learned a lesson the hard way, so hopefully I can help someone else learn it the easy way--before it's needed!

April showers bring May flowers--and an abundance of clover with a risk of bloat.  Here's a definition of bloat from The Cattle Site:
Bloat is simply the build up of gas in the rumen. This gas is produced as part of the normal process of digestion, and is normally lost by belching (eructation). Bloat occurs when this loss of gas is prevented. There are two sorts of bloat. The least common type is gassy bloat, which occurs when the gullet is obstructed (often by foreign objects such as potatoes) or when the animal can’t burp (such as with milk fever or tetanus). The second type of bloat is frothy bloat, which happens as the result of a stable foam developing on top of the rumen liquid, which blocks the release of the gas. This is by far the most common form of bloat, and unlike gassy bloat, it is highly seasonal with peaks in the spring and autumn. This is because the foam is formed by breakdown products from rapidly growing forages (particularly legumes such as clover and alfalfa). These increase the viscosity (stickiness) of the rumen fluid and prevent the small bubbles of gas formed by rumen fermentation from coming together to form free gas that can be belched off.

This photo shows Ebony and Tiggy in the round pen next to the barnyard, grazing on the grass and clover.  In the past, we managed our spring grazing for the horses, to prevent them from colicking.  The cattle (Sara, Siobhan and T-Bone) tagged along as we gradually let the horses out to graze, and everyone did fine.  This year was a bit different, as we had Ebony in the barnyard, Siobhan isolated in the Home Pasture, and the "boys" (Royal and the two steers) wintering with the horses in the Lower Pasture.

Siobhan and Macree were put into the Home Pasture while it was still winter, and we kept hay out for them constantly.  So as the spring grass began to come in, they had plenty of hay with marginal grazing that was only gradually improving.

The animals in the Lower Pasture were eating mainly hay and grazing the pasture down as soon as green grass appeared, never giving it a chance to take off.  This was not our ideal way to manage them, but it was all we could do without a better way to winter them until the new pasture (Kara's Pasture) was finished.  Being in this grazed-down pasture, they were not at a risk for bloat . . . until they moved to a new pasture.

I first came across bloat reading Keeping a Family Cow ProBoards Forum.  (I highly recommend this website for anyone who wants to keep cattle!)  Bloat was on my horizon now, but barely.  It was something that happened to other people.

The first day I let Ebby out in the round pen to graze, I put her out in the late afternoon (when the grass was dry) for about an hour and a half.

The next morning Herb was up and out early and put Ebby back into the round pen to graze, which he mentioned to me about three hours later.  We got her back into the barnyard immediately, but unfortunately the damage was done.  (I have only myself to blame, for not filling Herb in on what I had learned about bloat.)  At first she seemed okay . . . but by the time we went out to feed around 5, Ebony refused to eat her grain.  Thanks to my reading on KFC, that set alarm bells off in my head, and I looked closer.

(NOTE:  This photo of Ebony was taken after she was fine and was licking mineral salt, but I used it here because it fits perfectly with the signs and symptoms listed below.)

The hollow usually visible in the area of her rumen (in front of the left hip) was gone.  Instead, it had ballooned out, actually visible in this photo as a lighter area because of reflecting the light.

The Lifestyle Block explains the signs and symptoms of bloat:
What are the signs of bloat?
  • In bloat, the rumen swells. This can be seen as distension and then a large bulge in the abdomen in the left flank area behind the rib-cage in front of the hip where there is normally a depression.
  • The cow will stop eating and become restless; she may bellow, repeatedly try to defaecate or urinate and regurgitate boluses of herbage. Her breathing will become rapid and more laboured, maybe with the mouth open and tongue protruding. She may groan and grind her teeth because of the pain and discomfort.
  • If she gets worse she will become staggery, her mucous membranes (lining the mouth and nose and eyes) will become cyanotic (pale blue), she will go down, develop convulsions and die or asphyxiation and heart failure.
  • Sometimes it may take only 30 minutes from access to rapidly-growing clover-rich pasture to death.
As you can see, finding Ebony with bloat constituted an emergency.  Luckily for us and for her, she had a mild case.  Her belly was distended, and she was in obvious discomfort although without the more severe symptoms listed above.  Her main symptom was being off her feed, but when I put my ear against her side, there were no rumen sounds--only crackling noises, which I learned from my KFC friends was not good.  The rumen should be rumbling or whooshing like a train going by.  Ebby wasn't belching or pooping, nor did she care to eat any hay.
  • Early treatment of bloat is usually successful. If treatment is left until the cow is recumbent, the outlook is not good.
  • If bloat is spotted early, the cow should be taken off pasture and given proprietary anti-bloat or anti-foaming agents by mouth. These act by breaking down the foam in the rumen.
  • In an emergency, 100 ml of vegetable oil, or 250 ml cream, or 1 litre of milk may do the trick.
  • A little gentle exercise may help break down the foam and make animal start to belch - this is a very good sign!
  • When the bloat is severe and the cow distressed, you should call your veterinarian right away. The vet may need to operate on the rumen to release the pressure caused by the foam.
  • If the cow is very distressed and gasping with head extended and tongue protruding and your veterinarian is not available, you may need to resort to an emergency rumen puncture operation. This is not for the faint-hearted and should only be a last resort. Even then, it’s best to speak to your veterinarian first to make sure it’s the best thing to do.
  • The emergency operation involves plunging a sharp pointed knife into the distended rumen and making a short incision into it. Sometimes the gas will explode outwards but it may be necessary to scoop the excess stable foam out by hand. Oils like liquid paraffin or antifoaming agents like pluronics should be added to the rumen contents, then the site should be cleansed and sutured like a standard operation site.
I hollered for help to my KFC friends, and they came to the rescue!  Here's what I told them:
Tonight Ebby refused her grain, just licked at it and walked away.  Ate a bit of hay, then stopped.  She looked quite round compared to what she's been since calving (more of a hollow look), so I listened to her rumen. I'm sorry to say I've never put my ear there before, but I really couldn't hear anything. Just very slight crackles like rustling cellophane. (I listened to Siobhan's to compare, and hers sounded more active.)  She turned her head and licked at that spot, like I've seen her do for contractions, so I assumed she was in pain. 
I put baking soda in with her feed along with a puddle of molasses, and she tasted it but would not eat it.  I called the vet and while I waited to hear back, mixed 1 cup baking soda in a beer bottle of water. Herb held her while I got it down her. She started burping quite a few times, then had a tiny bit of poop, perhaps 1/5 of her normal amount, pretty runny but not diarrhea (about what I'd expect after getting grass). When we let her go, she took a little water, then went to eat some hay. 
I heard back from the vet, and he said to give her 2 cups of PGA (apparently moonshine, and that's a new one for me). I asked if vodka was okay, and he said yes, the closer to 100 proof the better. Btw, he knows her size, that she's a Dexter. I said I'd given the baking soda and that she was burping, had drunk a bit, and was eating hay.  He said we were probably okay.  I said I'd check in an hour and see how she was. 
We just went out, and there were a couple of splatty bits of poop, but not what I hoped to see. She still looked quite puffed out, is the best way I can describe it. So I gave her about 1 1/2 cups of 80 proof (40%) vodka, which she DID NOT like! I guess I maybe got a cup into her. She did begin burping quite a bit. I listened to her rumen some more, and I heard a bit of activity, but not what I hoped to hear. What I'm really praying for is a great big POOP! 
I'm going to stay up and check on her, but wanted to holler for help first. Any suggestions for things I haven't tried? I'm out of baking soda, unfortunately. I do have more vodka, though. I don't know if I could get it in her by myself, though, and Herb has gone to bed so I'm on my own.
(Let me say here that I have since been advised not to give baking soda for bloat, since bicarbonate of soda produces a bubbling gas, which a bloated cow already has too much of.)  I still wasn't happy with the relative lack of rumen sounds, so I walked Ebby around the barnyard for about 20 minutes.  She terrified me by falling to her knees (trying to stop and lie down), but I dragged her to her feet and forced her to walk.  Finally, I heard a delightful sound--a good loud belch!  I began to vigorously massage her rumen, and after a while I heard more belches, and then she pooped.  When she went over to eat some hay, I began to feel that we were out of the woods.  Finally I went to bed, although I got up in the middle of the night to check on her and listen to her rumen again.  Hearing more belches and counting new cow patties, I was able to go back to sleep!

We were lucky that Ebby had a mild case of bloat that was caught and treated quickly, thanks to our good vet and KFC friends.  But that late night spent dragging my sweet cow around the barnyard and massaging her side with my ear pressed against her belly is something I hope never to repeat!  So how do you prevent bloat?  Here are some tips from The Lifestyle Block:
  • If you have only lush clover-dominant pasture, don’t put cows onto it when they are hungry. Give them hay or concentrates first. Hungry cattle will gorge and may develop bloat.
  • Anti-foaming agents can be sprayed onto risky pasture before it is grazed.
  • If they are on risky pasture, cows can be drenched twice daily (eg at milking time) with proprietary anti-bloat substances (that often contain pluronics or detergents or alcohols).
  • Some antibloat treatments can be given in the drinking water, but this may be insufficient in wet weather when the cows may not drink as much.
  • A combination of drinking water medication plus once daily drenching may be a practical approach.
  • You could dose your cows with long acting (controlled release) antibloat capsules, and these have the advantage of lasting for 100 days or more.
  • You could provide anti-bloat blocks and licks. 
  •  (Added by me)  Keep Thera-bloat anti-bloat drench on hand.  There are now two doses sitting in my "cow cupboard."  If they get thrown out un-used, so much the better, but it's better to have them in case of a need.  Bloat is an emergency!
Above is a photo of a Sweetlix bloat block I purchased after Ebony's episode of bloat.  I had to make an 80-mile round trip to find one, and I got the last two they had!  One went out for the "boys," and one went in the barnyard for Ebby.  We kept her off all grass, clover and feed for 10 days.

After that, we began to gradually re-accustom Ebby to grazing.  She got her hay in the morning so she would fill up on it first.  Then after lunch, when the dew had dried off the grass and clover, she went out to graze for an hour the first day.  Each day we increased her grazing time by half an hour until she was up to three or four hours of grazing.  At this point, Ebby is waiting for the new pasture to be fenced so she can get out in it, but she is ready to go.  There is basically no clover in that pasture, and the grass has matured.  We'll fill her up on hay first and keep hay under the shelter for her at all times, even when she's grazing.  And we will watch her like a hawk!

Here's a link to a post a friend from Australia did after her cow bloated, including photos to show a more severe case than Ebony's.

Since the bloat episode, we've changed how we manage the other animals' grazing.  Once the grass in the Back Pasture was long enough for them to graze, we let them out for an hour and a half.  They were thrilled!

After their allotted time of grazing, we went down to the Back Pasture to move them back into the (well-grazed) Lower Pasture where we kept a bale of hay in the run-in shed.  The horses usually came first . . .

. . . followed by the "boys."  All three of them are new to us since last grazing season, so it took a few days for them to learn the routine and come for their feed.

Pretty soon they were beating the horses to the gate to follow us into the "old" pasture and get their bit of grain.

It took about 10 days of building the animals up gradually to six hours of grazing before I felt safe leaving them out in the pasture full-time--with the bloat block handy, of course.  While they devoured it at first, they hardly seem to touch it now.  The weather has gotten dry, the clover is fading, and their rumens are well-adjusted to the forage which is not quite as rich as it was.  We still keep an eye on them to be sure they're doing well--when we can see them over the top of the grass, that is!


  1. "counting new cow patties" . . . .better than counting sheep for a good night's sleep in your case!


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