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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care                                     January 2003

  Hi Folks,

            This month I’d like to talk about hardware disease, as I’ve seen an unusually high number of suspected cases in the last 30 days. Hardware disease is actually an umbrella term for anything that causes a strong enough traumatic impact to the cow’s digestive tract, especially in the area of the reticulum (the 1st stomach). The worst case as described in veterinary textbooks is called traumatic reticulo-pericarditis. This is when a sharp object pierces the wall of the reticulum, piercing also the diaphragm as well as the pericardium. This creates a septic fluid within the pericardium (sac around the heart) and severely compromises heart function, usually leading to death.

            Why is it that cows eat bad things? It is mainly due to the way they take in feed. Watch cows graze and you’ll see their tongue wrap around a bunch of grass and rip it upwards into their mouths. This is because cows don’t have upper front teeth to bite with, as horses do. And, although sheep and goats also don’t have upper front teeth, those two species have nimble and sensitive lips which warn them of sharp objects to avoid.

            However, hardware disease is not necessarily only caused by sharp metal objects. Similar symptoms of a stopped-up gut can be caused be an accumulation of sand, small pebbles and stones, glass fragments or any other object foreign and large enough to ruin the digestive tract.

            The symptoms are typically these: cow goes abruptly off-feed and milk is reduced to near zero within 1-2 milkings; a low grade fever (102.7-103.2) is usually present, but it can be higher; only hay is desired, if anything at all; humped back – and if pulling up on the skin at the shoulders, cow will remain humped up because of the pain underneath in the chest if they were to drop down (as would be normal); firm/fibrous manure that if squeezed will release droplets of liquid with fibers remaining in hand.

            Treatment requires a magnet, which will be swallowed into the reticulum (1st stomach) and draw the metal onto itself. Magnets usually stay in the reticulum for life, but sometimes will pass out. You can check to see if a cow has a magnet already by crouching in front of her brisket with a compass and seeing if the needle points directly towards the brisket. (Don’t have the cow standing directly north of you!) By the way, one magnet has more “pull” than two or more together. If you don’t believe me, place one magnet on a metal post and pull it away and then try it with two or more magnets together. The group of magnets will be easier to pull off than the single one.

            As would be expected when a rusty or dirty piece metal pierces through internal organs, an infection occurs. If the metal pierces through to the heart area, the prognosis is very poor – especially if heart function is so compromised that the milk veins become engorged and edema of the brisket and under the jaw (bottle jaw) occurs. If the metal pierces the lungs instead, there will probably be some pulmonary abscesses developing. If the metal pierces not the chest cavity but the abdominal cavity, there will be an initial infection (peritonitis), then scarring of the reticulum to its adjacent organs – the liver, rumen or abomasum.

            Besides giving a magnet to draw back the metal, an antibiotic will be needed for the obvious infection. The ones which are best to use are either penicillin, ampicillin

(Polyflex) or ceftiofur (Naxcel) - depending on how much the cow was milking before the crisis. In general, if the cow was milking at peak, she could be expected to get back to about 80% of where she was in about 2 weeks time. Cows affected later in lactation may not come back well and dry off early. The antibiotic will increase the chances of survival of the developing calf in a pregnant cow as well, since a systemic infection, if left unchecked, can lead to loss of the calf (abortion).

            The traditional surgery for extracting the offending piece of metal is rarely done in the barn these days, as it is very involved. However, as I was doing a twisted stomach surgery this past month, I was doing my normal sweep of the internal area before sewing the stomach down and, lo and behold, I discovered a nail poking out of the reticulum and pulled it out. It was a horseshoe nail, very rusty at that. It was only the second time in 8 years I’ve actually extracted a nail from a cow, and it was only a chance finding while correcting a twist. Another practitioner I just talked with said that he once pulled a nail out of the pylorus (outlet of the 4th stomach) after sewing the stomach down. (By the way, the order of the 1st-4th stomachs are: reticulum, rumen, omasum and abomasum.)

The idea to give all cows a magnet at 1st breeding as a heifer or 1st freshening is a good thing to do, but few farmers I know will do it. One magnet costs between $2-4; multiplied by 50 cows = $100-200 in prevention. That is cheap compared to losing a cow to hardware. If the cause of the hardware is due to an accumulation of irritating small stones, glass or non-magnetic metal (aluminum soda cans, usually crumpled and sharp), a magnet will unfortunately not help. And, periodic bloating is a possibility after hardware since the vagus nerve which stimulates the rumen to function can become damaged. I’ll let you figure out all the costs involved with losing a cow to something like hardware.

            By the way, there are other conditions that can look like hardware. Cancer certainly can put a cow off-feed, but usually only moderately, with small recoveries over a few to many weeks. Enlarged lymph nodes are usually detectable (either internally or externally); the cow will be slow to rise and may grind her teeth. A cow with a stomach ulcer is another possibility. A humpback on a fresh, young cow milking really well and being pushed hard with lots of grain would be such a suspect. If it’s a bleeding ulcer, the manure will be black and tar-like, also with a fever. A kidney infection can give a humpback, fever and off-feed. This can be initiated by a bad uterus after calving, with the septic fluid making its way reverse through the bladder and back to the kidneys. An odd condition, that of mesenteric torsion (early), can give symptoms similar to hardware but within a day they will kick at the belly with complete blockage of the intestines and no manure at all. Spoiled feed will put a cow off-feed, until she blasts out with profuse, watery scours a day or two later. Unexplained sudden death could be attributed to hardware (or internal bleeding).

            I think the main reason I’ve seen so many hardware symptoms recently is that people are now feeding only stored feeds, which during harvest could well have picked up a variety of foreign objects, whether metal wire, horseshoe nails, screws, small stones, crushed soda cans or even glass.


5th Annual Lancaster Eco-Farm Days, Tues Jan.28 & Wed. Jan 29th at Miller’s.

Tues Jan 28th: Jerry Brunetti, PCO, Hubert Karreman, David Kline (Organic Day)

Wed. Jan 29th: Homestead Nutrition, Beth Grove, David Kline (Traditional Day)

Call Levi Miller at 717-661-8682 or Penn Dutch Cow Care at 717-529-0155.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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