Baking Soda for Ruminant Bloat, or How My Ram Cheats Death

Reader Contribution by Tina Elliott
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My first experience with bloat happened the very first morning that I had sheep. Actually it was the very first morning that I had a sheep, as in the first one we ever had here at the farm.

Nigel, our East Friesian dairy ram, was two months old when we brought him home. I wanted to start my own dairy sheep herd, and I was lucky enough to find this ram only a couple of hours away. He was our first sheep, and I suppose he is fortunate to have survived this long with that dubious distinction.

After we brought him home, we put him in the barn, which was wide open and had no stalls. We installed some temporary chicken wire as Nigel’s stall, and felt okay about it as we left for the evening. He was just a little baby sheep, surely he would be fine until morning.

When I went out to check on the little guy the next morning, I found him lying down and severely bloated. He had smashed through the chicken wire (a bit of foreshadowing here regarding his behavior), and had gotten into the bag of sheep feed, that we of course had not locked up because we thought he was secure. The lesson we learned at this point; NEVER leave any food out, no matter how secure you think your animals are.

Frantic that I had killed my very first farm animal, I called around trying to find a vet in my area that knew anything about sheep. Not an easy thing to find where we live. Most people where we live keep goats; VERY few keep sheep. I finally found a veterinarian (who would not come out), who told me to give him nothing but prairie hay for the next week, and hope for the best. That’s it???!!!! Surely there was something else I could do!

My husband ran to the farm supply store and brought back drenching equipment, tubing equipment, bloat treatments, anything and everything he could find that might help us. I, on the other hand, was furiously searching the internet for anything I could do that might help my little ram.

What I found was a treatment that used things I already had on hand; baking soda and vegetable oil. I am not a vet, and I had never owned any kind of livestock, but I assumed if I didn’t do something my ram was going to die. They say once a sheep is down, it will never get back up. I had nothing to lose.

I mixed some baking soda, water and a bit of vegetable oil, and loaded an oral syringe that my husband had brought back in the bags of possible supplies from the farm store. I ran to the barn, grabbed Nigel, and crammed the syringe into his mouth. He didn’t like it, but I was able to get all of the contents down his gullet.

Within an hour, he looked better. Within 24 hours, he was fine. I had cheated barnyard death, and kept my spirits up, thinking maybe I could actually keep livestock without killing them.

Fast forward two years, and Nigel is STILL smashing through fencing and gates, causing me endless amounts of trouble. The other day I went out to feed everyone, and Nigel is lying on the ground, his belly swollen so badly I could see it from a distance. I rush over to him and he gets up. Oh. My. Lord. I have never seen anything like it. I honestly couldn’t believe that his rumen hadn’t burst, he was that huge.

We usually feed him mostly prairie hay, with a small amount of alfalfa. The last time we bought bales of alfalfa was in July. Last week, we ran out, and our supplier has no more. It would seem that most people in our area are out. As a result, we bought two bags of alfalfa cubes from the farm store, hoping that we could locate more alfalfa bales before the bags of cubes ran out.

Now, with sheep you can’t just start feeding them different food; it can kill them. New food must be introduced slowly. Ruminants, like sheep, goats and cattle, create gasses in their rumens as they process what they have eaten. When those gases build up too much, which can be caused by eating too much or eating new foods with no transition, it is called bloat. And it is a killer.

Nigel has an attitude problem, and if he doesn’t get what he wants he WILL throw a fit. In the two days between running out of alfalfa and getting bagged cubes, someone here had been giving him corn, in an effort to keep him from smashing through his fencing in a fury because he wasn’t getting what he wanted. That corn resulted in Nigel blowing up like a balloon from the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

My initial thought was to try and deflate him as much as I could, but if I couldn’t do it FAST, I thought I was going to have to insert a needle into his rumen to pull out some air. That is how dire the situation was. I immediately shoved a handful of plain baking soda into his face, which often my sheep will nibble on as they need it. I got the smallest amount into his mouth. Nigel was having none of it.

I ran into the house (which is a pretty big deal; I don’t run if I can help it), mixed some water, vegetable oil and baking soda, and loaded the oral syringe gun. I can’t handle Nigel alone, as he probably weighs two hundred pounds, and hubby was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t wait. I tried holding one horn across the gate and using the other hand to stick the syringe into the side of his mouth, but I couldn’t hold him. As a last resort, which I knew could make the situation worse but I was desperate (it was a Sunday, no vet available), I put a tiny bit of sheep pellets in a bucket and soaked them in the baking soda solution.

It is at times like these, as a homesteader-in-training, when you cross your fingers, and pray. A lot.

He ate it.

Within thirty minutes, he looked better. Within three or four hours, he looked almost normal.

Once again, Nigel had cheated death, and I had escaped the guilt of one of my animals dying on my watch.

In the two years since we moved here, the way I react to the various crises around the farm has been tempered through experience. I no longer panic as I did the first time Nigel bloated; I now have a steely determination to simply do my best to take care of issues as they arise. That kind of mind set I think can only come from experience, dealing with trouble week after week, and having to solve problems on your own.

The most difficult thing about transitioning to this homesteading life was accepting that there is a steep learning curve. Unfortunately, the animals are the ones who pay the price while you are learning how to care for them. Reading and research are great, but nothing takes the place of experience.  If you are just starting your homestead, don’t get discouraged.  Time is your best teacher.

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