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, January 31, 2015

Better Bite Bloat in the Butt!

Last spring I did a post about our first bout with bloat, a true bovine emergency.  We have now had a second bout with bloat--in the middle of the winter with no clover in sight!  So here I am, once again, to share things we're learning . . . so others can hopefully learn from our mistakes and avoid them!

This photo was taken on Jan. 19 in the early afternoon.  I was still recovering from the winter crud, and Herb had been doing almost all of the feeding since doing much of anything left me exhausted.

This was as adventurous as I got--using a telephoto lens to peek at the cattle enjoying a bit of shade on a warm winter day.

All five cows were chewing their cud together in the shade, but when I looked out a bit later, Siobhan was at the other end of the pasture eating on the hay bale.

I looked out yet again and saw the same thing--Siobhan skipping the cud chewing party to dine at the hay bale.  It was unusual enough that I told Herb I wanted to feed her evening grain and check on her.
I went out about 4:30 to check on Siobhan.  Siobhan was eager for her feed, and I let her eat it to keep her still while I checked her over.  It didn't take long for me to notice her bulging side and to be worried about her.  As long as she was still, I pressed my ear to her side and listened to her rumen.  There were no nice rumblings, just a few crackles--NOT good!  So I haltered Siobhan to take her up to the barnyard.  As I led her out of the pasture, she gave a little "drive by" poop that plopped down in two places as she walked--not a nice reassuring, I'm-not-budging-till-I'm-done-with-this-serious-buisness poop!  Take my word for it:  It's a fact of life with cattle, you WILL become a "connoisseur" of poop, and Siobhan's puny plops were just not doing it for me.

I took the photo (above) on my cellphone after we got to the barnyard, so I could text it to the vet.  While Herb walked Siobhan around, I went back to the house to get our "Bloat Kit," which consisted of a bottle of Therabloat and a large needle-less syringe to drench her with it.  (I sincerely hoped I could avoid having to use the plastic tubing that I bought in case I ever needed to shove a tube down a cow's throat into her rumen!)  The dark bulge at the bottom center of the photo is Siobhan's hip, and the large ballooned expanse bulging toward her head is her bloated left side.

This photo shows Siobhan's hip bone on a level with the switch of her tail.  You can see from the photo that her left side, where the rumen is located, is distended and very full, although not bulging up above her backbone.  My guess is that she was somewhere on the way from mild to moderately bloated.  These photos are of a cow that was more severely bloated, so severely in fact that her owner didn't stop to take photos until the cow deflated down to the stage shown in the photos!  Thanks to Louise of Carragheen Dexters for sharing her story and photos.  At any rate, Siobhan's rumen was very rounded and firm to pressure, and rumen sounds were absent.

Having been through this before, we knew the drill, and while we waited for the vet to call back, we took turns walking Siobhan rapidly around and around the barnyard.  She had interrupted Wellie's nursing to go eat her dinner, and she was extremely indignant that we were keeping her away from her baby!  So it really wasn't a challenge to keep her moving--all it took were occasional pulls on her lead rope to channel her energy in the direction we wanted.  Whenever I needed to stop for breath, Herb massaged Siobhan's rumen firmly to get the gas moving.  It sounds a bit crazy, but it really helps, and the massage was often followed by some encouraging gurgling sounds.  I kept laying my ear against her rumen, checking for those melodious notes.  If you spend much time around cattle, you'll also become a fine arts aficionado--feeling your heart lift to a nice tenor rumble or plummet to hear a soprano cellophane crackle.

After about 15 minutes of this, I was not happy with our progress.  Siobhan was still bloated with no good rumen sounds and no burping, and she began to arch her back like she wanted to poop.  She did this every few minutes, with no result at all or just a measly bit of poop.  This is a sign of physical discomfort and stopped up "plumbing."

So into the squeeze chute she went.   Cows make terrible patients!  They do not understand, "I'm doing this for your own good," so a squeeze chute is invaluable when a bloating cow needs to be drenched.  The squeeze sides held her still, with Herb's help to hold her head, while I got the syringe filled with Therabloat into her mouth and squeezed it a bit at a time down her throat.  You can't hold her head too high or she'll choke, but if you let her drop it down, the precious medication runs out.  You have to develop a feel for when the head is in just the right position so the only option is for the patient to take what's coming to her and swallow it!

About that time the vet called back.  He suggested we give Siobhan Gas-X, which is simethicone, but unfortunately that was about the only gas remedy that Herb didn't have in his medicine cabinet!  Since we had just given the Therabloat, we decided we would wait it out and give it time to work.  Herb really had to finish some case notes, so he went back to the house while I continued to walk Siobhan rapidly around the barnyard.  I still wasn't happy with her progress, so I started calling Dexter friends that might have dealt with bloat.  I was very thankful when I heard Melissa Parker of Nonesuch Farm on the other end of the phone.

Melissa had dealt with bloat before, and she had some excellent advice besides the Therabloat and massage.

  • Keep her moving!  
  • Get her chewing!  Tie a bit or a stick in her mouth to make her chew, which will make her burp.
  • Cut out her grain for a few days.  Cows can get acidotic after an episode of bloat, and we needed to withhold grain for 2-3 days.

This photo is not the best quality because it was taken at about 6:15 as it was getting dark, but you can see the bit I rigged up for Siobhan.

Luckily I had a large (size 5) Dexter halter, a snaffle bit with big side rings, and a couple of spare carabiner clips--and voila!  Siobhan's Big Blue Bloat Busting, Belching Bitted Halter!

Believe me, Siobhan was NOT amused!  Unfortunately, I can't offer any videos of how her halter worked because by that time we were bouncing quite indignantly around and around the barnyard, but the bit was what finally turned the corner.  Siobhan was definitely chewing at it--trying to spit it out--and it wasn't long until I heard a lovely rumbling belch!

I listened for regular rumen sounds, counted three long belches, and noted a couple of decent poops.  Best of all, there was a hollow in Siobhan's rumen where before it had resembled a large, firm beach ball.  A half hour after the bit went in, I pronounced her "cured" to the best of my ability.

It was also almost pitch dark, and I could barely see to lead Siobhan back to the pasture.  She was a black shadow fading onto the dark hillside, first calling loudly, then in soft mama moos.  After a few moments, a small shadow at the bottom of the hill baby moo-ed back, and Siobhan took off galloping and bucking down the hill to find her calf.  All's well that ends Wellie, I guess.

The question we had to figure out was WHY did Siobhan bloat?  This wasn't the frothy bloat that Ebony got from lush clover in the spring.  So what happened?  This excellent article on bloat gave me a few answers.

  1. Earlier in the winter the cattle were eating coarser first-cut hay.  About a week before this happened, we put out a new bale of finer second-cut hay.  I was concerned that it might not have enough roughage, and I've since been told this could have been a factor.  The cattle did have constant access to the hay bale, which is very important, but after the bloat episode, I asked Herb to throw some of the horses' coarser hay (from an older bale) over the fence for the cattle.  Believe it or not, they actually left the "nicer" bale and came up the hill to eat the coarser hay, Siobhan included.
  2. I'm the one who replenishes the minerals, and with being sick I had not thought to ask Herb to check on them.  If the animals' salt consumption decreases, they may drink less water, which can contribute to bloat.  I can't remember now if there were minerals left in their tub at the time or not, but it's an easily avoidable bloat factor that I won't forget again.
  3. We had recently switched Siobhan from 11% all-grain sweet feed to 14% non-GMO multi-species pellets.  The article on bloat cites small feed particle size as a contributing factor for bloat.  Small particle size is found in pelleted feed, as opposed to all-grain.  I had been sure to make the change gradual and added probiotics to Siobhan's feed during the process, which is the way to change feed.  However, given the way pellets break down more quickly in the rumen, it seems likely that the feed itself was a contributing factor.  This is not enough to make me switch back to GMO all-grain, but it is enough to make me watch more closely.  After withholding grain for three days as Melissa suggested, I worked Siobhan back up to a pound twice day instead of 2 pounds twice a day.  She doesn't really "need" the grain to maintain her weight, so she now gets it just to keep her coming up to the barn twice a day, which makes it easier when I want to shut her up for milking.
  4. The weather had suddenly changed from a week with  daytime highs of about 32° to a high of almost 60° the day Siobhan bloated.  As surprising as it seems, weather changes are a factor in bloat.  Obviously, that is nothing we can control, but we can be aware of it and be more vigilant for other potential factors that could cause bloat.
As emergencies go, this one was kind of an "also ran".  I'm not sure that Siobhan's life was in danger, and she might have recovered with no treatment at all.  However, I was not willing to take the chance when a $3 bottle of medication and a couple hours of my time might make the all the difference.  This episode has reinforced in my mind the importance of several things:  Constant access to free choice hay and loose minerals; daily interaction with your animals to check on them; familiarity with their normal habits; and keeping a box of basic emergency supplies available.  

There's one more thing our "bloat kit" needs (besides a new supply of Therabloat), and that's a trocar.  A trocar is definitely one of those tools you hope you never have to use.  It's similar to a hollow ice pick that you stab into the cow's rumen to allow the excess gas to escape.  It sounds horrendous,  but it beats losing your cow.  One woman I know, who lives in a remote area far from vets, found her beloved cow down, seriously bloated and gasping for breath after getting cast in the barnyard.  Knowing that her cow was dying, this gal grabbed the steak knife she used to cut hay strings, cleaned it quickly in teat dip, and stabbed her cow in the rumen to let the gas escape.  That's not something any farmer wants to do, but as this gal said, when the alternative is watching your cow die in agony, you'd be surprised what you can do!

We know that no matter how well you care for your animals,  things can and do go wrong.  I'd much rather use a trocar than have to resort to using a steak knife on a living animal . . . so the emergency cow box is getting a trocar to add to the tubing, the syringe and the bottles of Therabloat.  If we never have to use them and they sit there gathering dust, it was cheap insurance!  If we should need to use our emergency kit, we'll be ready to kick bloat's butt!


  1. Hello Susan. What a great thorough article on bloat! we've been raising cattle for decades, all on pasture and just when you think you have all the answers you know you don't. Cows, like people are all individuals and what might produce bloat in one will not always affect others. Those of us with " a few" animals vs the huge confinement farms or feedlot operations have the advantage (and desire) to watch our critters and often can catch an issue as opposed to those who have so many, a few losses are just expected and not sweated over. Your herd is lucky to have you!

    1. Thank you so much for your encouraging words, Donna! In one sense I felt like I failed my cow because she got bloat in the first place, but I do realize that we can't control everything, and we can't prevent everything from happening. We can only do the best we can and be vigilant to treat them when things go wrong. So your encouragement is very much appreciated!


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