Three Ways to Gauge Pastured Livestock Health

Reader Contribution by Meg Grzeskiewicz
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Before I launch into my first MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog post, I’d like to say hello to everyone. I am in my early twenties and starting a mob-grazing company in upstate New York: Rhinestone Cattle Co. Last year, I worked as an intern for Greg Judy in Missouri. My posts will deal specifically with beef cattle and mob grazing, but often will apply to other ruminants and grazing methods as well. I want to focus on sharing the easy, inexpensive things you can start doing today to get ahead in grazing.

Here are three easy observations you can make every day to see how your animals are performing. Use them to constantly adjust your grazing program, instead of “flying blind” until sale day or weighing. They can help you adjust paddock size or give supplemental nutrients. These three indicators are valuable whether you’re using mob grazing, low-density rotation or even set stocking.

How to Check Rumen Fill

Stand facing a cow’s left side (with her head to your left and tail to your right). You need to be on the left

side, because that’s where the rumen is. Look for a triangular indentation behind her ribcage and before her hook (hip) bone, high on her side, just beneath her loin muscle. If you can’t see a pronounced depression, her rumen is full. Her forage intake has not been limited, and she has eaten to her heart’s content.

However, if you can see a sunken triangle, she is hungry. You need to provide her with more forage mass. If you’re high-density grazing, allocate larger paddocks. In a low-density rotation, it’s time to move to the next pasture. If moving your herd faster or using up more pasture isn’t feasible, put out some hay.

Observe Livestock Drinking Behavior

Clean water is absolutely imperative to the health of your herd. It can affect stocker gains by one-half pound or more per day. Watch your animals drink. They should put their noses right in the water and drink without hesitation. If they sniff or lick at the water more than once, you have a water quality problem. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t make your livestock drink it! If your cattle drink from a pond, put up a single-strand electric fence (hi-tensile or temporary polywire) two to three feet out into the pond. This gives the animals the perimeter of the pond from which to drink, but keeps them from standing in the middle. The water will become less muddy and won’t be contaminated with urine and manure.

If your herd drinks from tanks, adding a chlorine tablet will keep algae and bacteria at bay. This is especially important if your tanks are filled from ponds or wells. Punch holes in a plastic drink bottle, and place a few little stones in it to keep it underwater. Add a small piece of a swimming pool hypochlorite tablet, which you can get at a hardware or pool store. Check the bottle every few days and add more chlorine when it’s gone. I did this with a tank so full of algae I couldn’t even see the float, and after three days the water was clear. The chlorine doesn’t bother the cattle; they actually drink more because of the improvement in water quality. This translates to better gains.

Check Livestock Urine pH

(Thanks to Mark Bader of Free Choice Enterprises for teaching me all about urine pH!)

When cattle ferment the protein fraction of grass in their rumens, ammonia is produced as a byproduct.
Usually this waste ammonia passes out of the animal and doesn’t cause any metabolic problems. However, cattle grazing lush, washy forage may ingest too much protein, and therefore generate too much ammonia. The excess ammonia is absorbed into the bloodstream. It may cause alkalosis in the rumen, oxygen uptake restriction in the lungs, and inability to breed.  This is most common in the spring and fall, and when animals are forced to eat down to the bottom third of the grass plant. (Protein is concentrated in the lower part of the plants.)Fortunately, there is an easy way to tell if your cattle are suffering from ammonia overload.

Because ammonia is an alkaline substance, it raises the pH of cows’ urine. Go to a hardware or pool supply store and buy pH test strips, with a range of at least pH 6-9. Stand out in your pasture and wait for a cow to pee. Pick out exactly where the cow pees, then dip a pH strip in the moisture on the grass when she walks away. The ideal result will be pH 7 (neutral), but anywhere between 7 and 8 is acceptable. 8.1 to 8.6 is cause for concern, and 8.7 to 9 or higher puts that animal in danger of not conceiving a calf.

Test at least three cattle. If the average result is over 8.3, you need to cut back the amount of forage protein your herd is ingesting. Allocate larger paddocks or move your herd more often, causing cattle to eat just the tips of the grass plants. The tips are the high-energy part of the plant, and increasing energy intake will also balance excess protein. For this reason, providing energy supplement lick tubs helps too. You can also put out a small amount of hay or straw. It doesn’t need to have any nutritional value, just dry matter and fiber mass to counteract fresh washy forage. For a herd of 75 head, one small square bale per day is sufficient.

It’s easy to evaluate protein balance and gut function by looking at the consistency of manure piles as well. I’ll cover that in my next blog.

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