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SAY "BYE-BYE" TO BLOAT by Will Winter, DVM
May 15, 2014
Bloat. Not a pretty word, and certainly not a pretty sight either. Most people associate the word with dead fish that have washed up on the beach or the stock portfolios of corrupt CEOs, but the topic today is emergency bloat in the ruminant animal. Yes, bloat still occurs, and shockingly, sometimes it can occur within the herds of the best of graziers. By understanding the minute details of this condition we become capable of virtually eliminating it.
Even the human with his miserably puny digestive powers can bloat, or at least we can feel bloated, so one can only imagine the Vesuvius-like explosive power of the 50 gallon fermentation tank that the average cow carries around. Untreated, bloat most often leads to a painful death, too awful to even imagine and something that even God canít tolerate so, at the very end he allows severe pain to throw the victim into unconsciousness for the final moments.
But, before we talk about finalities, letís get review what we know about bloat with the goal of never having to know the meaning of the word ìtrocarî. It has been said that the best way to learn anything is ìthrough experienceî to which the country wag Mark Twain added ìpreferably somebody elseís!î. Woody Allan said ìIím not afraid of dying, I just donít want to be there when it happens!î. Bloat is like that as well.
THE BIOLOGICAL TERRAIN WITHIN
As you probably remember from Ruminology 101, the rumen is a muscular expansion of the esophagus that precedes the other 3 stomachs and is full of water, digestive bacteria (the good guys) and some forage, a combination that enables animals to basically eat wood (cellulose) and turn it into meat, milk and more calves. Itís actually the bacteria that eat the wood, the cow just profits from the eventual demise of the digester bugs as well as their ìwaste productsî. Its those digestive bacteria that are the most important to focus upon when trying to understand bloat.
Each forage, or category of forage, requires a specific variety of bacteria to digest it. Hundreds of varieties coexist in a normal rumen and their population density is directly related to the availability of the particular food on which each variety thrives. When grasses are consumed, the sugar/pectin/cellulose digesters prevail and lots of good acetic acid results. If grain is added to the diet, the starch-digesters prevail and lactic acid is made. It is also true that the ideal rumen pH is 6.5-7.0 (this can best be estimated by using pH tape on fresh manure, which closely follows rumen pH). There are different bacteria for each pH level as well. If the pH of the rumen is too low, the digestive tract becomes much more vulnerable to upset.
Simply put, when bloat occurs, the rumen has not had enough time to shift bacterial populations for proper digestion and anaerobic fermentation rapidly ensues. This explains the worst kind of bloat, a foamy froth that will not pass with eructation (belching). Another keynote is that many animals are usually affected.
Normally, the phyllosphere, the leaf surfaces of pasture and hay, is teeming with beneficial bacteria; they protect the plant surfaces, and, when consumed, also re-culture and nourish the rumen. We know now that many factors such as pollution, agricultural chemicals, acid rain, genetic-engineering and many other industrial farming practices have reduced this essential population a million times over, resulting in such a shockingly low level that it will neither feed the rumination process properly nor will it adequately engage the ensilage process. Rumen cultures and silage inoculants have been developed to remediate this loss and these products may have great return on the cost of application. The leaf surfaces can also be inoculated during foliar feeding and most experts recommend adding a beneficial microbial component to every application. The choices range from compost teas, to a commercial variation called Effective Microorganisms, to active cultures of Lactobacillus plantarum and related beneficials. Any of these applications are a boon to a sour rumen or to fresh chopped forage.
OTHER TYPES OF BLOATING
Note that when an individual animal bloats, other prevailing conditions or factors may apply. A common one on many farms is bloat following damage to the vagus and other nerves that make the rumen move about. This can be due to trauma or more likely abscesses from ìhardwareî disease. These animals tend to be chronic bloaters and they require either special attention or, in the worst cases, culling. This type of bloat is usually the 'free gas' type, not the frothy form. Itís easier to get the gas to pass, but they may remain a maintenance headache on the farm.
Calf bloating also tends to be more obscure and more of an individual nature. It is most likely to occur in calves on cheap and inferior milk 'replacer'. Some calves have also picked up an infection either through a case of pneumonia or via the umbilical cord and this infection has damaged the nerves that make the rumen churn. This type comes on suddenly and is quite often fatal if not treated aggressively.
But back to the most common form of bloat, the one that can ravage a herd and destroy the profit for a whole year's work. Classically, this type of bloat occurs when hungry cattle have been allowed sudden access lush pastures, especially alfalfa or other legumes. While easily preventable by allowing the cattle to fill up on dry hay before release, this can happen to the best of us following a fencing failure or accidental release. The severity can occur rather suddenly or can take several days to accrue, but either way, the symptoms are unmistakable with the left-side distention and ballooning, and the obvious discomfort.
NOTES FROM THE EXPERTS ON PREVENTION AND CURE OF BLOAT
~One of the most stunning paragraphs Iíve ever read comes from Pat Colbyís book ìNatural Cattle Careî wherein she states Bloat is a sign of a sick farm, the cause being an imbalance of potassium, magnesium and sulfur, or following the use of artificial fertilizers.î Over-fertilized and under-mineralized soils create the bloat.
~The goal of pastured livestock is to get the sap Brix up about 12%. Once that is achieved, livestock will no longer bloat on the forages even if occasional inadequate care is given to moving onto lush legume pasture. Again, soil and forage quality trumps even grazing rotation in importance to health.
~Perhaps the best 'bloat insurance' is to allow the herd to fill up on dry hay during the 12 hours prior to release onto alfalfa. This insures that the animals will not over-consume the lush greens. Another rock-solid management technique is to limit the grazing to an hour or so per day in the beginning. This is the ultimate method of switching to the appropriate rumen ìlivestockî.
~Homeopathy offers seemingly miraculous cures for bloated animals. It can be combined with drenching, stomach tubing and even tapping the gas from the rumen with a knife or trocar. Dr. Hue Karreman recommends starting with Nux vomica every 15 minutes until you get relief. He also finds success with Carbo veg., China, Colchicum, and Colocynthus. These are all very common and handy homeopathic remedies. You can find detailed information on purchasing and dosing these remedies in his new book ìTreating Dairy Cows Naturally-Thoughts and Strategiesî.
~Dr Ed Sheaffer uses a similar approach to homeopathy and often adds Carbo veg to the drinking water when a new pasture is opened or if there is some likelihood of bloat. When cattle are beginning to bloat he most frequently alternates doses of Nux vomica and Carbo veg. These remedies can be used along with conventional treatments as well. His homeopathic treatment plans are outlined in detail in his book Homeopathy for the Herd-A Farmerís Guide to Low-Cost, Non-Toxic Veterinary Care of Cattleî.
~Dr Paul Dettloff, in his recent book Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animalsî, agrees that the best treatment of bloat is prevention. Filling cattle up with roughage before turning them out, limiting grazing on fresh pasture or alfalfa to an hour or less, or, to be really sure feed a paloxolone product (such as Bloatgard or Therabloat) as a preventative (check your local regulations and the label for organic certifiability).
Emergency rescue can begin before the vet arrives and a smoothed-end garden hose or milker hose can be the salvation of a bloating animal. A gag may be constructed from a piece of broom handle and that is tied across the mouth to allow passage of the tube. When they try to chew on the crosspiece they will be more inclined to pass gas as well. His favorite drench at this time is about 1/4 cup of dish soap in a pint of warm water.
Only as a last measure to save life should an attempt be made to stab the rumen through the left paralumbar fossa (just behind the ribcage). A trocar is a hollow spike that keeps the hole open but if a sharp steak knife is used, be sure to leave it in place and turn it so the gas can escape. Care must be taken to prevent peritonitis following the emergency. Dr Paul has found that many of the sufferers of calf bloating can be cured by feeding lots of roughage and whole oats. Basically, all they can eat. Many will quit bloating after a few weeks.
HEALTH FROM THE SOIL UP
In summary, it is beginning to become clear that virtually everything about livestock health always leads back to providing well-mineralized, biologically-active, and high energy forages. Cattle with good biological activity in their rumen who are carefully rotated through well-managed forages just plain wonít bloat. It doesnít get much more simple than that.
William G. Winter, DVM: Dr Winter hails from a farm family in Kansas and practiced holistic veterinary medicine for over 20 years. He is now the herd consultant for the Thousand Hills Cattle Company of Cannon Falls, MN. He is the author of 'The Holistic Veterinary Handbook'. He and his wife Rebekah are the chapter leaders for the Weston A. Price Foundation for the Twin City area.