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Clover causes death in Missouri cow herds

Cattle grazing in a field Matt Carr/Getty Images
WATCH OUT: Cattle grazing fields of with an abundance of clover, including white clover, may have a higher incidence of bloat.
Here are some tips for reducing bloat in cattle when clover is heavy in pastures.

“White clover is as thick as dog’s hair,” says Ryan Lock, University of Missouri Extension specialist. Too much clover in cattle pastures this year is causing cattle deaths in southern Missouri.

Fellow MU agronomy specialist Tim Schnakenberg reports that cows in southwest Missouri are dying because of frothy bloat from grazing spring pastures with an abundance of clover. While the conditions surrounding bloat often are temporary and disappear once the legumes become more mature, Extension specialists across the state are warning cattle producers to inspect pastures before turning out cattle, add feed or even provide a bloat guard.

What is bloat?

According to a University of Wisconsin Extension publication put out by Dan Undersander and Dave Combs, “Bloat is a digestive disorder characterized by an accumulation of gas in the first two compartments of a ruminant's stomach — the rumen and reticulum.”

Bloat typically occurs when cattle are turned out on immature pastures containing alfalfa, white clover and red clover, when there is less than 50% grass in the pasture. Add to that the cold, rainy conditions persisting in Missouri, and the condition is set for a bloat season.

In many cases, the animal can handle grazing, but when it is unable to relieve the gas by belching, pressure will build in the stomach and bloat occurs. In severe bloat cases, the cow’s rumen will distend by ballooning. Death comes by restricted breathing and heart failure.

Reducing bloat

Farmers can reduce the occurrence of bloat with a few management techniques. Gene Schmitz, MU Extension livestock specialist, offers a few tips to stave off bloat in cattle herds:

Wait to move. Don’t turn hungry cattle into pastures with high amounts of immature legumes, especially when pastures are wet with dew or rainfall. Cattle eat big meals in the morning, he explains, so this is a time you do not want to move cattle to bloat potential areas, especially if they are hungry. Wait to move cattle into these areas until closer to midday.

Try strip-grazing. This practice allows only a small portion of the diet to be legumes.

Offer dry hay. “Try to maintain fiber levels in the diet by allowing access to dry hay, grass,” Schmitz says. This will stimulate saliva production, which also will help with the bloat issue. Consider placing a dry bale of hay in the field.

Feed bloat blocks. This also is beneficial, but cattle must consume an adequate amount every day in order for it to be effective. Pay attention to the label for feeding instructions.

Add corn. If there is a pasture that looks to be heavy on the clover this year, consider adding 4 to 5 pounds of corn to a mature cow’s diet. Corn is a readily fermentable carbohydrate that actually speeds up the process and uses some of the excess nitrogen.

Watch for bloat signs

Bloat can happen as quickly as 15 minutes after turning cattle out on pasture. Symptoms of severe bloat include urinating and defecating frequently. Cows may bellow and stagger.

Check animals every two hours after initial turnout on to pastures.

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