Farm Progress

Spot livestock problems early by checking manure daily

Signs of diet, parasite or water problems often show up first as changes in manure.

Rhonda McCurry, Freelance

February 26, 2018

6 Min Read
COWPATTY: Healthy cattle have manure that is brown in color with just enough moisture to spread out into the typical “pie” shape.eyjafjallajokull/iStock/Thinkstock

When it comes to manure, anything outside of normal could cause a stink.

Manure can be a very telling factor in whether an animal is sick. Each species is different. A change in diet can change its color and texture. Water must be provided or dehydration will be evident. Outside temperatures can make a difference as well.

• Sheep poop
When it comes to sheep and meat goats, manure that is not pellet form is a concern. Normal sheep pellets will have a firm consistency, be light to mid-brown in color and will break up into fine pieces. When these elements are not present, something is wrong.

Dusty Nagy, veterinarian and assistant teaching professor of Food Animal Medicine and Surgery at the University of Missouri, says owners may spend time worrying about whether sheep and goats make a pellet or not but the problem is typically more associated with total available water for these animals.

“A soft, mushy pellet or lack of formation may indicate a heavy parasite burden, but more commonly water intake or availability has been altered,” Nagy says.

 Mushy sheep manure can mean food is moving through their system too fast, infection is present or there is too much protein in the diet. A loose stool can occur rapidly in sheep or meat goats, while swine, for example, are more prone to constipation. A lamb may actually quit eating, which of course means something is wrong.

Galen Dreier, owner of Dreier Feeders in Newton, Kan., feeds 9,000 hogs and breeds 300 ewes for the club lamb market. When he’s not in the pig barn, he’s consulting as a nutritionist three days a week. Dreier says manure must be checked at least once every day. He adds that paying attention to the animal and knowing the difference between normal and abnormal could be the single most important practice to raising livestock correctly.

Dreier says a person must be trained to identify the real problem in order to pick out the phony ones. Lambs will become constipated and won't eliminate as much volume, he says. If there is no change in the sheep’s diet that we’re aware of, then it means there is some kind of attack in their system to where it’s eliminating infection. It’s on self-defense.

• Swine poop
Nagy says pig poop is the smelliest of all the farm animal species. Normal poop has a strong odor to it and tends to be lighter in color like a brown or and yellow-tan tones. It will also vary in consistency depending on the pig’s feed. The higher fat and grain content, Nagy says, the more likely manure will be thinner or more yellow.

 Dreier says when he sees a dark-colored swine stool it could mean the animal is low in fiber. Today’s show pig diets are safer because they often contain oats, which are high in fiber. Due to efficiencies in the feeder pig business, Dreier says he offers a more finely-textured feed that could cause ulcers. If he sees a dark stool he responds quickly because an ulcer could rupture and the animal will bleed and die.

• Proper balance matters
Richard Gottsponer, a Cargill sales consultant with Nutrena, says steers should be on a high concentrate, low roughage diet. Gottsponer says if they are eating 30-32 pounds of feed, the roughage portion is approximately 10% or 3 to 4 pounds of hay per day. Grains have high energy content so if the manure pile has white foam bubbles on top, he says the rumen is not working properly. Adjustments in diets should be made by increasing good quality roughage by 1 pound a day, doing so slowly in a five-day period. 

“Normally when I see that foam on top it tells me the grain or energy of their diet is not being digested well,” Gottsponer says. “The animal is not getting the proper balance for their rumen. During hot summer months, good quality clean water is key in keeping cattle healthy. Water should be available at all times for your livestock. The water should be so clean you’d want to drink it.”

• Cow pie
Cattle manure can be complex, Gottsponer says. It varies in form, consistency and color. When it’s normal, cattle manure should look like heavy cake batter, in a pile that has just enough moisture to spread out. The pie-shaped manure should be light to mid-brown in color and should be thick in its best form.

When things go wrong with cattle, many changes take place. Nagy says this is mostly because owners feed cattle a wide variety of grains, byproducts and roughage. Many cattle are fed and turned out on pasture, while others are in a feedlot scenario with specific diets. Mixing feed for various outcomes also means change in manure.

Regarding color, any time cattle manure is gray, black or red, or a combination of these colors, the owner should take notice. When the poop is green, it means the heifer has been eating fresh grass. The browner it becomes, the more grain the animal has ingested. If its manure is thin, the animal should be placed on a high-fiber diet with more grass hay than grain. Yet, depending on the type of grain in their diet, an animal with loose feces that is dark brown to gray in color can also be common.

When abnormal manure is found, it is also important to consider the animal’s roughage intake. Digestibility issues can occur if the feedstuff contains too much lignin. This low-quality indicator means stools will stack higher than normal.

Gottsponer says that when you are growing cattle or have cattle utilizing a high-roughage diet the quality of the roughage becomes very important. If the manure is standing up and kicking it hurts your toe then cattle are probably not getting the correct protein or energy in their diet. When your animal has loose stools with red streaks in it, this could indicate coccidiosis, which should be addressed immediately with help from your veterinarian.

• Give them water
Water plays a major role in all species but in cattle the must-have liquid has the ability to change the appearance of the manure. Nagy says when the animal is on new, spring grass it will have a looser stool because the grass is lush and has a higher water content. The gastrointestinal tract has some capacity to regulate water balance which will alter the consistency of feces. When the animal is dehydrated, increased absorption from the GI tract may result in dry manure.

Gottsponer emphasizes plenty of cool, clean water for a show animal. Cleanliness of the water is extra-important. Just as humans wouldn’t want to drink from a dirty glass, cattle don’t do well when the water provided is dirty or has a scum on it.

If the animal is exposed to pond or creek water, regulate an access point that allows them to access the water without having to trek through mud or hurt their hooves on sharp rocks.

The key is to monitor manure with eyes wide open. Even during the hustle of morning chores, Gottsponer says to climb into the pen and make sure you don’t see any problems. He also says to take a stick and poke through a pile or two to be sure the animal’s manure appears normal. Disease and infection can creep up fast, and taking the time to look can avoid a serious issue later.

“All it takes is five minutes a day to walk the pen that your animal is in to check for problems,” Gottsponer says. “There is nothing more important than taking care of the animals the way we say we will.”

McCurry writes from Colwich.

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