Foreign objects, like plastic, can cause stomach obstructions

Buckeye Beef Brief: Bale wrap and litter can cause digestive issues.

December 30, 2019

5 Min Read
Pernell Saling, a local meat processor in Noble County
OBSTRUCTIONS: Pernell Saling (wearing orange hoodie), a local meat processor in Noble County, Ohio, shows some items related to stomach obstructions. They included a hair ball and a section of garden hose. Christine Gelley, Noble County Extension Educator

The stomach is a fascinating part of the body, regardless of what species you study.

Digestion is an active and noisy process: from chewing, to swallowing, to breakdown, absorption and disposal. People tend to associate the idea of a “churning stomach” with an illness, but really, the stomach should be churning (well, moving) to do its job. If it is not, you could be in trouble and experiencing a bowel obstruction.

Humans can tell that something is definitely wrong if they have a bowel obstruction. Within a couple days, the affected person will be completely miserable and perplexed, and likely will seek aid from a doctor. Symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and general physical weakness as a result.

Babies, both human and animal, are much less able to communicate their digestive stress. Observant parents (of human or animal offspring) may not know what is wrong, but should recognize the situation is not good and seek assistance — before symptoms of malnutrition or abdominal tissue death occurs.

Cause can be mystery

Unfortunately, due to the inability to communicate coherently, animals with a digestive obstruction may waste away before the mystery of “why” is solved. Managers will notice the animal is behaving oddly. It will go off feed, have watery stools and gradually lose body condition, but it will rarely show signs of an infection.

Ultrasounds may reveal the issue, but not always. The contents of the digestive tract can be difficult to distinguish on an ultrasound, depending on the material. Metal objects, which can cause “hardware disease” or intestinal twisting, may be obvious; but contaminants like plastic or plastic foam are harder to detect. On an ultrasound, plastic and plastic foam may appear to be plant material in the rumen.

Pernell Saling of Saling’s Custom Meat Processing in Noble County, Ohio, shows some items related to stomach obstructions. They included a hair ball and a section of garden hose. These items were found in two separate animals, and the garden hose caused significant damage to the fillet of the steer that consumed it. When asked, Pernell said about 5% of the animals his company processes have a potential blockage in the rumen — twine, hair, plastic, etc.

Sheets of plastic (large or small) will float on top of the rumen fiber mat and could block the healthy movement of gases through either end of the animal — thus, causing bloat. If many pieces of plastic are ingested, the warmth of the rumen can bind the small particles into dense masses that can block further passage into the intestines, and cause malnutrition. They can become lodged in the esophagus during regurgitation and cause suffocation. Alternatively, the plastic could remain in the rumen, getting tangled up with plant material and taking up space in the rumen, causing decreased intake. In the case of the latter, the animal’s demise can progress very slowly and go undetected until natural death or processing. All farm managers could find themselves confronted with this scenario.

Accidental bale wrap ingestion is a contributor to these conditions, which can be referred to as “plastic disease.” Biodegradable sisal twine stands a better chance of passing through the digestive tract, although it can become tangled with plant fiber as well.

In general, bale wrap (plastic net wrap or solid wrap for baleage) is an excellent tool to improve hay storage and preserve quality, but efforts must be made to prevent accidental ingestion during feeding. Before grinding hay for a mixed feed or putting the bales out for the animals, remove all of the bale wrap. This can be increasingly difficult in the winter and on frozen baleage, but a careful eye and persistent management can go a long way to reduce these problems.

Litter another issue

The Ohio Department of Transportation estimates that annual roadside litter in our state totals nearly 12 tons and costs about $10 million to address. Along with it being unsightly, litter may be accidentally ingested by many kinds of animals, including livestock if it is baled in hay. Scout your field for litter before mowing hay, flag bales you suspect may contain trash, and unroll bales to increase your chances of finding the garbage before your animals do.

Littering is a crime in the state of Ohio. If you witness littering, you can report the offense to ODOT online at Law enforcement officers — including police officers, state patrol officers and wildlife officers — can issue tickets to litterers. Report your location, a description of the occurrence, and the license plate of the offender if you can.

Under Ohio law, litter is “any trash thrown, discarded or dropped by a person onto public property, private property not owned by the individual, or into Ohio’s waterways. The Ohio Revised Code prohibits littering, regardless of whether or not it was intentional. Numerous laws prohibit littering and illegal dumping. Littering is a serious offense, punishable by fines of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.” More details about litter prevention can be found at

The convenience of disposable, nonbiodegradable packaging in our modern lives comes with a cost. Responsible use of this packaging is important for human, animal and environmental health. My advice to you is take caution to prevent accidental ingestion of waste, know the signs of plastic and hardware disease, and share your story with your community to raise awareness about the negative impacts of littering.

Gelley is the agriculture and natural resources Extension educator for Noble County, Ohio, and a member of the Ohio State University Extension Beef Team. The Beef Team publishes the weekly Ohio BEEF Cattle letter; find it at


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