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The Moo News

Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care                                           September 2002

Hi Folks,

            I’d like to talk about off-feed cows this month, especially in light of potential feed changes coming along with the harvest. A cow “off-feed” is obvious to any observant farmer, but catching it when it just begins can prevent a twisted stomach (displaced abomasum/ “DA”) from occurring. Some common reasons that a cow goes off-feed are fever, retained placenta (not “clean”), moldy feed, sudden feed changes, diarrhea (scours) and ketosis. If a cow has a fever, it must be figured out why she has it. Common causes are uterine infection if just calved, mastitis, pneumonia and hardware. Moldy feed usually is associated with ensiled feeds – if you see a chunk of mold, chances are very high it is throughout the entire area. Sudden feed changes are not good, but nearly everyone does it especially when last year’s crops are depleted and the new ones are ready to feed. But it takes a good week to have the rumen bacterial and protozoal populations adapt to the new feeds entering the system. Often times, a cow will slow down or go off-feed entirely with a feed change, only to scour out in a day or two and then she will begin to resume eating. This is the kind of cow that will respond well to a probiotic (lactobacillus). Feed her like a horse – no ensiled feed until normal. Cows are creatures of habit and any changes you make should be done extremely gradually to minimize negative impacts. For possible moldy feeds, the main thing to get into a cow is some sort of toxin neutralizer such as activated charcoal or a top dress of a clay adsorbent product. Ketosis is found in cows milking well that all of a sudden go off-feed and don’t take in enough energy or as a side effect in cows that get a twisted stomach. Cows with primary ketosis will have firm manure, look somewhat ‘sleepy’ and not finish their grain whereas a hardware cow will have firm manure, a hump back and be totally off-feed. Ketosis can cause a DA or can be due to a DA.

            Feverish cows, especially with a retained placenta and uterine infection early in lactation, are especially prone to getting a twisted stomach (DA). These cows look like they feel miserable, depending on the severity of the uterine infection. Cows early in lactation with fever due to bacterial pneumonia usually do not end up getting DA’s even though they are off-feed, unless the ration is very deficient in effective fiber. Cows that are slightly off-feed just prior to calving, especially those older cows that may be deficient in calcium, are likely to get a DA. Fevers due to hardware may actually lessen the likelihood of a DA since the infection can often lead to scarring of the stomachs to the body wall, effectively keeping the abomasum tacked down but forever after hindering general gut motility (periodic bloating usually occurs).

            Any problem at the time of calving can make a DA more likely, especially in first calf heifers that are also entering the feed ration of the milking string for the first time. Typical problems would be calving early and not cleaning, twins (usually don’t clean), a hard calving (internal pain relief biochemicals block natural oxytocin release) and low calcium levels in older cows or low selenium levels in areas with deficient selenium.

            So what exactly is a displaced abomasum? The condition is simply when the 4th stomach (true stomach like ours) fills with gas and floats from its normal position on the belly floor up to the left (LDA) or right (RDA) just beneath the ribs. There is a characteristic “ping” that can be heard if striking your finger upon the ribs while you have your ear on the cow or use a stethoscope. Most DA’s float up to the left (when looking at the cow from the rear), especially in the first month of lactation – mainly because there is room to do so since the calf no longer takes up belly space and the rumen is not yet filled to capacity. A small portion are RDA’s which is fortunate because they can be deadly (due to the internal anatomy of the ruminant belly). Please beware that either kind of DA can happen at anytime in the life of a ruminant (cow, bull, calf, goat, sheep, etc) but that RDA’s seem to be more common later in lactation when most farmers aren’t thinking about the possibility of a twisted stomach anymore. In my experience, some kind of feed problem (molds) usually causes these late lactation RDA’s. Unfortunately since most farmers don’t suspect an RDA, the animal receives supplements and continues to deteriorate until metabolically very unstable and emergency surgery needs to be done, if it is possible still at all. Learn to listen for pings.

            The typical LDA in early lactation has two basic causes. The first type usually occurs in the first 5-12 days fresh and is due to calving difficulties (large calf, milk fever, etc) giving a retained placenta, infection, fever, ketosis, decreased gut motility and the classic LDA ping. The second type occurs independent of the calving event (all went well and cow cleaned) and happens about 2-4 weeks fresh when the cow is apparently doing really well and then all of a sudden is off-feed and ‘twisted’. This is due to ration problems of not having enough effective fiber and lots of carbohydrates (starch) that will create a rumen acidosis. This upsets the normal rumen bacteria and the cow goes off-feed with a rapid development of ketosis and an LDA quickly develops. Even though the LDA seems to come on overnight, the underlying feed problem probably was brewing for a little while.

            Typical treatment for a DA is surgery. Less common is to roll a cow and even less commonly cows are culled due to a DA. DA’s seem to be part of modern dairy farming. However, I have wondered sometimes why is it that beef cows don’t really get DA’s as dairy cows do. All I can figure is that they roam freely over the pasture with their calf when fresh and they are fed mainly forages instead of rapidly increasing amounts of highly fermentable feeds. Of course they don’t milk like dairy cows do. Backing this up is my observation that the rate of DA’s is extremely low on farms that practice intensive grazing. Normally cows with a retained placenta and associated fever tend to develop DA’s, but not so on grazing farms. Cows with the worst uterus infections (basically festering cesspools) seem to be able to “graze it off” if allowed. Of course these animals are not highly productive during those first 2-3 weeks, but they truly seem resilient and fend off the predictable DA that otherwise typically develops.

            So, how best to prevent a twist? Get the rumen quickly bulked up with roughages after calving and graze a cow that had calving problems. Do not make rapid feed changes in your cows. Also, I’ve been trying out a botanical mix that, if given before a “ping” is heard, has prevented a number of probable DA’s. The mix is fluid extract of ginger, gentian, licorice, peppermint and tincture of nux vomica. It has been effective in “slow” cows, not eating quite right but not yet “twisted”. If we can create a balance between God’s design of a cow as a true ruminant and her will to milk, we will maintain healthy and productive animals. I’m also happy to relay that plant medicines such as fluid extracts and tinctures seem to be effective methods in helping our herbivore friends.

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

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