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Mud is a hotbed of disease and poor eating habits for dairy cattle

As little as four inches of mud can slow performance and it can 
be an excellent environment for disease affecting cattle health

dairy cattle in a stall

Once I was checking the spring ration for a dairy producer who raised a group of replacement dairy heifers in a drylot. The mud was about a half metre deep and with each step toward the feeder, it was slow going. About half-way along, my boot got stuck and by struggling, I buried it. Abandoning what I was doing, I went back to the barn without a left boot (and sock).

Unfortunately, these dairy heifers and others that live in such quagmire, face a similar predicament as well as negative health consequences. Most producers can avoid most of these problems by practicing a few “mud maintenance” techniques.

Without losing a single rubber boot, Kansas State University researchers confirm that as little as four inches of mud adversely affect cattle. Their specific work showed that four to eight inches of mud reduced average daily gains in growing drylot beef 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. The negative performance could be exploited to growing dairy replacement heifers. Even when mud is not deep, it creates slippery surfaces along the adjacent concrete, which hamper beef and dairy cattle from getting solid footing as they attempt to move up to the bunk to feed.

More particular dairy studies suggest for every one inch of mud, dry matter intake is reduced by as much as 2.5 per cent in lactation cows, which is explained by their reluctance to move in the mud up to the feed-bunk. As a result, cows eat fewer meals and promotes more “slug” feeding, which is speculated to disrupt their otherwise natural flow of good rumen fermentation/feed digestion/natural rumination (cud-chewing) and may underlie other digestion problems such as subclinical acidosis (SARA). Long-term SARA is proven to dovetail into other problems such as displaced abomasums, and lameness in dairy cattle.

Hotbed of disease

Aside from reducing the mobility of dairy cattle the deeper it gets, mud is often contaminated with disease-causing microorganisms from the environment as well as contaminated with cattle manure, urine and other fluids such as blood. When biologically active in warm spring weather, these pathogens can cause a higher incidence of mastitis, lameness, enteritis and even mortality among dairy cattle.

Many reports suggest many types of bacteria that cause mastitis on the milk line are widespread in the cow’s environment. Subsequently, mastitis is inevitable in many lactation dairy cows unless protocols are put in place to prevent these pathogens from entering their teat canals. Mud increases this pathogenic opportunity in two ways; (1) it allows contaminated sources of bacteria to come in direct contact with the udder’s teat and teat-ends and (2) it promotes surface lesions and/or chaffing of the teat skin, which harbours even more bacteria.

In addition to mastitis caused by bacteria living in mud, lameness is a big problem in cattle raised in muddy pens or pastures, which is usually not related to the aforementioned feed intake problems. Instead, more than three-quarters of lameness observed in dairy cattle housed outside are confirmed cases of foot rot 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. 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. There may also be other invaders such as strep and staph organisms found in soil, manure and even the rumen microbes of the cows themselves. And sharp rocks and stones found in mud will injure the cattle’s soft hooves and open them up to invasion by foot rot bacteria. Pus and discharge from swollen feet will contaminate muddy ground and healthy cattle can become infected if they walk in the same mud.

Aside from foot rot

Unfortunately, foot rot is not the only microbial threat that can live in mud of drylots and on pastures. Mud is a good home for cattle enteric disease-causing organisms such as crytosporidia and coccidia that cause coccidosis; the organism is shed in the manure of infected cattle, which defecate back it into the mud. Fortunately, coccidiosis in cattle can be controlled by adding monensin sodium to these cattle diets.

The actual extent to which mud contribute to these diseases in dairy cattle is not known, but one can speculate that good “mud management” implemented in muddy drylots and on pastures should reduce the incidence of their adverse health effects and also help dairy cattle move around and up to the feed bunk.

Here are some suggestions to help reduce the effect of mud on outside dairy cattle:

  • Scrape down pens — Deal with mud and 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.
  • Improve drainage in pens — Put in necessary culverts and grade pens with a bit of a slope, which helps carry water away from loafing areas.
  • Improve cattle comfort — Extra bedding should be used in drylot areas. While cleaning out pens, a mound in the drylot might be created, which water drains away and keep lying cattle, dry. Clean and slope dirt and manure away from pole barns.
  • Improve udder hygiene — For lactation cows with access to outside mud, concentrate on sound pre- and post-milking protocols, which clean and sanitize the teat and teat-ends.
  • Manage wet pastures — Avoid keep cattle in the same early pastures for extended periods. Implement more frequent movements of cattle. Move mineral and salt feeders on occasion to assist movement of cattle.

It’s not always easy to keep dairy cattle clean and dry after the winter snows melts and creates lots of mud. It is almost guaranteed to put non-lactation and lactation cattle at a performance and health disadvantage. Therefore, dairy producers should do all they can to lessen mud’s negative effects. Ultimately, protecting cattle from mud might also find my missing boot.

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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