Forages, Cattle Bloat Come Early

An unseasonably warm spring means the early onset of forage maturity, bringing with it the early instances of cattle bloat.

by Dani Yokhna
Courtesy David De Lossy/Photodisc/

While the past winter’s unseasonably warm temperatures seemed like a blessing to people across the country, now that spring has arrived, farmers must cope with the effects of the weather-pattern change. In addition to the early arrival and more constant presence of crop pests, farmers must be prepared for early maturity of field grasses and grains as well as the early onset of related livestock illness.

According to Ray Smith, extension forage specialist in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, many forage grasses and small grains used for forages reached maturity two to three weeks ahead of schedule—the earliest he’s seen in his seven years with the extension. This presents some concerns for farmers throughout Kentucky.

“Alfalfa and small grains lose nutrient value as they get to the later growth stages,” Smith says. “However, nutrient values in small grains drop much quicker than in alfalfa.”

Small grains, like wheat, rye and barley, are cut for high-quality silage used to feed dairy cattle. Producers harvest them at the late-boot stage to get the highest quality. Much of the wheat used for silage could reach this stage by mid-April in Kentucky.

Perhaps related, the state has already experienced seven cases of cattle bloat, all of which arrived about 20 days ahead of schedule, according to Craig Carter, lab director at UK’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Bloat, or frothy bloat, is a life-threatening disease in cattle that can occur when animals ingest young, vegetative legumes. The most common legume grazed in Kentucky is white clover, but cattle can also get bloat from grazing alfalfa and red clover.

“Alfalfa in many areas of southern Kentucky is ready to be cut now,” Smith says. “Alfalfa in central and northern Kentucky is probably one to two weeks from being ready for its first cutting.”

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Legumes, which are high in soluble protein, can cause the formation of a slime-like substance that traps gasses in the cattle’s rumen. Being unable to expel gas can cause the animal’s rumen to stretch. As pressure increases, breathing is affected, which can lead to death from suffocation. Cattle can die from bloat as quickly as an hour after grazing begins, but more commonly, death occurs after two to three days of grazing on a bloat-producing pasture.

The main symptom of bloat is a swollen left abdomen. Other symptoms include repetitive standing up and lying down, kicking at the belly, frequent defecation and urination, grunting, and extension of the neck and head. If untreated, the animal will collapse and die within three to four hours after symptoms appear.

UK specialists recommend several practices to help reduce the occurrence of bloat:

  • Grow grass-legume mixtures instead of pure legumes.
  • Avoid grazing immature legumes. Research has shown when cattle graze legumes less than 10 inches in height, they had twice the occurrence of bloat compared to those who grazed legumes 19 inches tall.
  • Don’t put livestock on legume-rich pastures with moisture content from rain or dew.
  • Cull livestcok that have frequent bloat.
  • Don’t remove livestock from a pasture when bloat symptoms first appear. Continuous grazing causes less incidences of bloat.
  • Give livestcok access to water and minerals.
  • Watch livestock closely after a significant change in weather.
  • Feed livestock bloat-reducing compounds.



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