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Mud Can Compromise Cattle Health

Six months of snow and windchill can make the hardiest lover of winter dream of spring on the Prairies. As our days become longer and temperatures rise, snow drifts eventually disappear into puddles and mud in cattle pens and pastures.

To say that mud is cattle-unfriendly is one of the biggest understatements of spring. It’s a source of tremendous stress on cattle living in it and the deeper mud becomes, the more problems that beef producers face, raising replacement calves, good growing cattle, beef cows and bulls.

Mud is more than just a mix of prairie dirt and clean melted snow. It can harbour disease-causing microorganisms from the environment as well as contaminated cattle manure and urine, which thaw and proliferate in the warm spring weather. When biologically active, these pathogens can cause lameness, sickness and even significant mortality in all cattle. Most producers can minimize the negative effects of mud and anything growing in it upon cattle by implementing some good “mud management” techniques.

Without the experience of losing your own boots in a muddy corral, some well-accepted Midwest American research has demonstrated that very little mud is really needed to become a big mess for cattle. As little as four to eight inches of mud was shown to reduce average daily gains in growing drylot cattle by five to 15 per cent. As this mud got belly deep, cattle performance was shown to be reduced by as much as 35 per cent.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take complex scientific analytical statistics to draw practical conclusions from these field trials that mud simply makes it harder for cattle to move around the pen and go up to the bunks to feed. It is generally agreed that cattle tend to become more unwilling to fight mud as it gets deeper and often fail to get up to the bunk and then feed on a regular basis. Even if the mud is not particularly deep, it might create a lot of slippery surfaces, which hamper cattle from getting solid footing as they attempt to move up to the bunk when they are very hungry.

Researchers also speculate that such poor and uneven feed intake caused by significant mud-laden conditions might lead to digestive upsets in cattle that would already compound their poor growth and feed efficiencies due to overall poor feed intakes. Such “On-off-on-off” feed intake in cattle can disrupt their natural process of good rumen fermentation/feed digestion/ natural rumination (cud-chewing) and underlie other digestion problems such as subclinical acidosis (SARA). Long-term SARA is known to dovetail into other problems such as lameness and other foot problems in cattle.

Granted, lameness is a big problem in cattle raised in muddy pens (or pastures), but most likely it is not caused by the above feed intake problems. Instead, more than three-quarters of lameness observed is due to the footrot microorganisms thriving in mud.

By nature, foot rot is prevalent in muddy conditions, because cattle hooves standing in constant wet mud becomes soft and pliable. Consequently, the skin of the hoof’s coronary band and inter-digital starts to crack, chap and is eventually opened to infection by anaerobic (lives without oxygen) bacteria called Fusobacterium necrophorum, but also may include other invaders such as strep and staph organisms found in soil, manure and even the rumen of the cows, themselves. Furthermore, any source of abrasion such as sharp rocks and stones found in mud will injure the cattle soft hooves and open them up to invasion by foot rot bacteria.

It is also well documented that foot rot is a contagious disease in muddy conditions. Pus and discharge from swollen feet will contaminate muddy ground and healthy cattle can become infected within a day if they happen to walk in the same drylot or pasture mud with similar hoof injuries.

Several environmental studies have proven that foot rot bacteria can live for about 10 months in unfrozen ground or manure. Unfortunately, foot rot is not the only undesirable microbial threat that can live in mud of drylots and pastures. Mud is a good home for cattle scour-causing organisms such as clostriadial pathogenic E. coli, Clostridium perfringens, salmonella, and lastly parasitic protozoa or crytosporidia and coccidia.

Coccidia protozoa that cause coccidiosis disease are particularly problematic to beef cattle raised in wet muddy pens or confined pastures, because the organism is shed in the manure of infected cattle, which defecate in the mud. Since, most of the cattle are living in close proximity with one another, most come into almost immediate contact with this cocci-infested manure/mud. Nursing calves are the most vulnerable to the cocci infections from mud, because they could be suckling a mud encrusted udder of a cow and often are not old enough to consume enough creep-ration formulated with a general protective coccidiostat.

The extent to which mud may spread coccidiosis in young beef calves or spread foot rot among the cowherd or reduce growth performance in growing cattle is directly dependent upon good “mud management” implemented in the drylots or pasture. Here are some suggestions and reminders to help reduce the adverse impact of mud on your cattle:

Scrape down pens — the best way to deal with mud is to get rid of it. We are not only getting rid of significant amounts of mud, but in many cases, much of the manure that built up during the winter. Scrape in front of feeding areas or concrete lip in front of the feed bunks. It’s a matter of doing anything possible, so cattle do not struggle with mud in their living quarters.

Improve drainage of pens — drylots dry up quicker if the water is allowed to drain away. Putting in necessary culverts and grading pens with a bit of a slope helps carry water away for loafing areas.

Manage wet pastures — avoid keeping cattle in the same early pastures for extended periods of time, particularly during wet weather. Implement more frequent movements of cattle under rotational grazing programs. Lower stocking rates where possible. Move mineral and salt feeders on occasion.

Improve cattle comfort — extra bedding should be used in calving and lounging drylot areas. While cleaning out pens, a mound in the drylot might be created, which water drains away from it and cattle can remain dry when they lie on. In addition, clean and slope dirt and manure away from pole-barns.

It’s not always easy to keep cattle clean and dry, the negative effects of mud upon cattle should never be taken lightly or ignored. Most cattle forced to deal with lots of mud after the winter snows melt in either drylot pens or open pasture are almost guaranteed to be at a performance and health disadvantage. Therefore, cattle producers should do all they can to reduce cattle living in mud for any length of time. Ultimately, protecting cattle from this quagmire is truly protecting cattle profits from mud as well.

PeterVittiisanindependentlivestock nutritionistandconsultantbasedinWinnipeg. Toreachhimcall204-254-7497orbyemailat [email protected]

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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