Published Oct 4, 2011

A humbling lesson about bloat

By Kevin Dietzel

This past weekend I lost a heifer to bloat. My first reaction was to keep this to myself, as this was a painful and embarrassing experience, especially considering that my professional title is “Grazing Coordinator” and I sometimes even get called “Grazing Specialist”. But after further reflection, I decided to share my experiences, in the hope that someone else can learn from my bad experience, or that I might get some good advice from others.

I only have seven animals, all heifers of various breeds and crosses, what I hope will be the start of my milking herd. I keep these animals on a pasture at my in-laws’ farm, about a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

Svanhild and Kevin this September

The heifer who died was named Svanhild. I bought her, along with her half sister Gunnhild last year when they were about six months old. I am currently in the process of having them bred; Svanhild was due to come into heat this coming Friday. She was raised on a nurse cow, so she was always on the wild side, but had just learned to enjoy some scratching in the last few weeks.

I started grazing them on alfalfa last Monday. I knew this was potentially risky, but I had grazed the same field of alfalfa last year, and I was easing them into it slowly. I wanted to graze the alfalfa now while it is still good quality forage, saving my remaining grass pastures for grazing later in the fall or hopefully even into winter. I started by giving them a strip that was only about 20% alfalfa, since a lot of it drowned out in 2008. They still had access to a portion of the perennial grass pasture as well. I gave them a new strip of the alfalfa every day, with the percentage of alfalfa in the strips gradually increasing. By Friday, the new strip they got was probably over 90% alfalfa (Actually, on Friday they got out of the fence minutes before I arrived in the morning, and I fenced around them so they were no longer “out”. Polywire and step-in posts are great!).

On Sunday morning I arrived at around 6:30, with just enough light to fence a new strip of alfalfa. There was a light frost on the alfalfa, which lies in a somewhat low area. Around 6:45 they were all munching away. They definitely love alfalfa. I continued to set up fence for the coming week, taking extra time because I used up all my reels of polywire and was having to use the stuff that I had “rolled up” on my arm, which tangles very easily. Those tangles were the only reason I was still there at 8:30 when they moved on from grazing alfalfa to browsing mulberry leaves, and from there to laying down and ruminating.

A few minutes after most of them laid down, I was close to them connecting some wires, and heard some grunting, more than usual. I looked up from my work and saw that some of them were swelling on their left sides, right where the rumen is. One of them (Svanhild) had moved away from the herd and was kicking at her stomach in agitation. I immediately dropped everything and ran to the house (my in-laws’) to find a number for the vet. Since my in-laws were out doing hog chores, I decided it would probably be faster to call my wife, since I don’t know where they keep their phone book. She immediately gave me the number for the local vet whom we have had out to the farm once before, and the number for the ISU vet school. The receptionist told me she would have the vet call me when she reached him (it was Sunday morning after all).

In the meantime, I continued setting posts, trying to keep myself calm. I knew the situation was serious, but thought we probably had a little time, maybe at least an hour before things would get dangerous. I had noticed it early, right? I figured the vet would call and tell me what to do or come out immediately, and there would not be any major problems.

The heifers were moving around in the pasture as a group, which I thought was a good sign. Twenty-five minutes after I called the vet I went to look at them up close again, which is when I saw Svanhild lying on the ground, not breathing, tongue hanging out of her mouth. It looked like she was gone already. I could not believe this was happening to me. I called the vet again, and the receptionist said she had not yet gotten in touch with him. I informed her that one of my animals had already died and that I was going to call ISU to come out, because I needed someone NOW.

Let me say right here that I have read quite a bit about bloat, and have read how to prevent it, and what to do when it occurs. I have worked on a lot of farms and talked to a lot of farmers, but I have never actually seen bloat in person. When you are in a panic and have already lost 1/7 of your herd, you want to hear from someone who has dealt with it before to tell you what to do right now.

ISU did not answer at the number I had. I called my wife again and she said she would work on contacting other vets. By that point, my in-laws had gotten back, so I asked my mother-in-law to call the neighbor who has cattle, thinking maybe he would have dealt with bloat before and have the emergency supplies on hand. He was at church. In a panic, I called PFI farmer Bruce Carney and said “Bruce, what do I do”. He said to shove a tube down their throats to relieve the pressure, or if they have stopped breathing, to cut right into the rumen with a knife.

I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and some tubing from the shop and ran out to the pasture again. My father-in-law came running out with a fillet knife in his hand, asking me what we should do. None of the others looked like they were about to drop, so we decided to see if Svanhild could be saved. She was laying on her left side, so we had to turn her over so we could cut into her rumen. That released some gas, but obviously only a small portion of it as she was still quite swollen. This was because it was foam, not just a pocket of free gas. My father-in-law kept trying to get the gas to come out while I jumped up and down on her chest, hoping to both push the gas out and get her heart going again. To no avail.

At this point my cell phone rang and a vet from ISU said he was on his way out. He recommended keeping them moving and giving some dry hay to any of the animals that would eat it. We gave up on Svanhild and moved the rest of the animals up to the barn and put them in our makeshift corral. Luckily, they were accustomed to going up there and getting treats, because we have been training them on the chute so they go through well for AI breeding. We got some buckets of water ready for the vet, brought them some hay, and kept them moving. We never let any of them lay down. One of the younger ones looked especially distressed and kept trying to lay down, but we kept pushing her up and moving her around.

In about a half hour, the vet arrived and pumped a soap solution (“Therabloat”) into their rumens, starting with the ones that looked the worst. Almost immediately we could see the swelling start to subside. Two of them never bloated and did not have to be treated. I will remember that when making future breeding and culling decisions.

Within ten minutes it was clear we were out of danger. The vet was very nice and helpful, and stayed around to give some suggestions for prevention and treatment in the future.

I should never have gotten into that situation, and I am angry at myself for having gotten into it, and for not having been prepared enough to deal with it when things did happen. The biggest lesson for me was that bloat can kill. Fast. I had no idea how fast a healthy heifer could go from grazing to lying there dead.

What caused the bloat on Sunday that was different from the last two days when they grazed what seemed to be the exact same amount of the exact same forage? Maybe it was the frost on the alfalfa. Maybe they were too hungry and ate too much too fast. Maybe it was the mulberry leaves (though I doubt it). Maybe that strip of the field had a higher percentage of alfalfa, even though visually it didn’t look like it.

I keep running the situation through my head, thinking about what I could have done differently that morning that might have saved Svanhild. If only I had stayed there and kept watching her, if only I had gotten a tube to relieve the pressure in her rumen right away, if only I had called more vets faster, if only…

Here are some of the things I will keep in mind in the future (I’m sure you experienced farmers know all this, I guess I’m dumb enough to have to learn the hard way):

-Talk to your vet before an emergency happens to find out what their policy is and how to get a hold of them, or if they do not want to deal with emergencies on Sunday mornings (or the middle of the night, or whenever) find a vet who will. Have that number on speed dial so you don’t have to search for it.

-Keep some emergency veterinary supplies on the farm. You can’t foresee everything that might happen, but there are some common things that can happen that it would be wise to to be prepared for. Stay tuned for a complete “Farmer’s Veterinary First Aid Kit” in the future. I will have to talk to some experienced PFI farmers to see what they keep around. For bloat, I will definitely have some trocars (little plastic screw-type things that go into the side of the rumen and release the pressure buildup; they can also be used to put stuff into the rumen such as Therabloat), some Therabloat, some tubing, some large syringes for injecting Therabloat, and maybe I might even invest in a pump to do a drench like the vet did.

-Take bloat seriously. It can happen fast, and it can happen to people who think they know better.

Some general suggestions for preventing bloat:

-Don’t graze stands of more than 50% clover or alfalfa.

-If you need to graze legumes, you can mow it a day or two beforehand and graze the swaths, as the lower moisture content forage is less likely to cause bloat.

-Feed the animals grass hay before letting them graze legumes, so they are already full of high-fiber stuff before they go out to graze. The saliva they produce when chewing their cud holds down the foaming. This strategy can also reduce performance, depending on the quality of the grass hay.

-There are mineral supplements that contain Poloxalene (Bloat Guard is one brand), which helps to prevent foaming in the rumen.

-Start them on the legumes gradually, so their rumen flora can adjust.

-Grazing with heavy dew (or frost?) increases the likelihood of bloat.

-Select for animal genetics that are less prone to bloat.

Have some more tips about bloat treatment or prevention? I would love to hear them. You can email them to me at, or even better post them on the PFI Grazing discussion group if you are a part of that.

Svanhild appreciates some scratching behind the ears.