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7 Tips for Avoiding Bloat in Cattle

Not many things scare ranchers more than the "B" word: bloat. It comes on quickly when cattle go to new, lush legume (or winter wheat) pastures, especially in the spring. Perfectly healthy animals can fill up with gas and go down within hours. 

Some cattle producers intentionally eliminate legumes from pastures just to avoid the potential of bloat. You don't need to do that, says David Hartman, Extension educator with the livestock team at Penn State University. 

"You can graze pasture legumes and still manage around the risk of bloat," he notes. 

Here are his seven tips to avoid bloat – most of the time.

1. Know the cause


Bloat happens when animals graze lush, high-protein legumes, and a protein film forms in the rumen. The film traps air bubbles into a stable foam, says Hartman. As the foam builds and traps more bubbles, the rumen expands into visible bloating on the left side of the animal. Unrelieved, it can kill by cutting off the animal's ability to breathe.

Alfalfa, red clover, and white clover are the most notorious legumes for bloat. Winter wheat can also cause bloat when it is lush in the spring.

2. Select against it

Some individual animals have a propensity to bloat, perhaps because of their physical characteristics. Although it's hard to prove, some ranchers think it is genetic and that you should cull hard against it. Hartman agrees and says to eliminate repeat bloaters and their offspring.

3. Get the mix right

Legumes are desirable in most pastures because they are high in protein, producing more milk and faster gains. You can overdo them. 
   "Shoot for one-half to one-third legumes in a pasture," says Hartman. "That mix forces cattle to eat grass with the legume. At more than half legumes, the bloat risk increases significantly." 

4. Fill them up

If you know you are going to graze pastures with potential bloat risk, don't put the cattle out when they are really hungry. "Fill them up on some dry roughages before turnout," says Hartman. 

Hay prevents overconsumption of legumes and lessens the abrupt shock of high-protein legumes in the rumen.

5. Move in p.m.

Cattle turned out into high-legume pastures in the morning when the dew is heavy or after a rain are at more risk of bloat. 
   "Let the dew dry off and turn them out in the afternoon," Hartman says.

6. Make a gradual intro

Graziers have debated whether to introduce animals to heavy legume pastures in short bursts or to follow the turn-them-out-and-let-them-adjust-quickly approach. 
   Hartman says many experts now favor the former. "Introduce them to legume pastures over the course of five to six days, increasing the number of hours each day," he says. 

He admits this can be a difficult schedule to manage for some ranchers, and the cattle might even grow wise and wait to eat the legumes. 
   After a few days of close management, their rumens will adjust, and you can leave them there. Give them plenty of dry roughage before the final turnout and observe them closely for a few days.

7. Use poloxalene

It's a mild detergent that is approved to be fed to cattle. It breaks down the surface tension of the protein foam in the rumen and prevents the gas from getting trapped.

It's usually administered in molasses or salt blocks, but it can also be mixed in liquid feeders or dry feed, or drenched into an animal that is already bloated.

"There are a number of products that deliver the chemical," says Hartman. "If you use it as a preventative, you usually start it 48 hours before moving the cattle into a heavy legume pasture."

Poloxalene is often sold under the trade name Bloat Guard (phibroah.com).

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David Hartman | 570/784-6660

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