The Proof Is in the Pile!: Assess Livestock Health from Manure

Reader Contribution by Meg Grzeskiewicz
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After you read this, I hope you’ll never look at a cowpie the same way again! Every manure pile is a gold mine of not just fertilizer, but animal performance information too. You can tell so much about how a cow’s digestive tract is processing ingested nutrients, just by looking down.

Ideal Pile

The ideal manure pile is one to two inches tall. It has circular ripples like a target, and a small pond-like depression in the middle. Spread it open with your boot. It should have the consistency of pumpkin pie (as Missouri grazier Greg Judy always says). The animal that left this gift has a well-functioning digestive tract, and is utilizing all available nutrients in the grass it eats. It is gaining, growing or milking to its maximum ability.

Fibrous Pile

The fibrous manure pile looks more like horse poop. It is tall and has well-defined shapes. When spread with your boot it is thick, more like cement than pumpkin pie. If your herd’s manure piles look like this, they are eating too much fiber (cellulose) and not enough energy and protein. This translates to a loss of productivity. Piles like this often occur when cattle are eating dormant stockpiled forage and hay. The easiest way to fix it is to provide lick tubs to supplement energy and protein. If weather and season allow, move cattle to green, actively-growing pasture. There are more expensive ways to add protein and energy to your herd’s diet, but I’m not particularly experienced or interested in them.

Runny Pile

The runny manure pile indicates just as serious a production problem as a fibrous pile. It is common to see cattle on lush spring or fall pastures passing runny, greenish manure. These deposits are more like puddles than pies, and are too watery to hold any ripples. Many farmers accept it as normal for the season, but in reality, these cattle are not reaching their nutrient-utilization potential.

Do you feel good when you have diarrhea? Of course not! Often, you lose a few pounds while you’re sick. Stockers and finishers with uncorrected runny manure may fall short of possible gain by a half-pound or more per day. The problem stems from the high protein content in fast-growing spring grasses, which I discussed in my previous blog. Not only can excess protein stifle gain, but it can cause a bunch of other health problems. In extreme cases, females will not breed. If you see runny manure in puddles on the ground or soiling the tails of your cattle, you need to change your grazing management to limit their protein intake. Give your cattle a larger paddock so they don’t eat as far down on each grass plant. Energy is concentrated in the tips of the grass plants, and protein is concentrated farther down. Energy balances out excess protein.

Another easy fix is providing a small amount of hay or straw (in square bales) to pastured cattle. When I worked for Greg in Missouri, the herd had this runny manure problem briefly. We threw out three square bales of hay each day during the fall period of rapid grass growth. Within a week the manure had firmed up and become ideal piles again. Three bales were sufficient for 200 head. The hay or straw does not need to have any nutritional quality. It simply acts as dry matter to counteract the nutrient-dense but protein-heavy pasture.

The first time I visited Greg’s farm, I thought he was crazy when he purposely stuck his boot in a manure pile and raved about its resemblance to pumpkin pie. In reality, it’s producers like him who succeed because of their attention to detail. They analyze every clue their cattle give about how well they’re producing. I’m sure glad Greg shared this one with me!