Mysterious Cattle Deaths?

By: Darol Dickinson
John Wayne chased a few cattle rustlers, dealt harshly with bad guys, branded calves and drove the herd to market. Buyers were waiting at the Dodge City receiving corrals with ready cash and the deals were promptly done. John had no legal problems, no school taxes, no land taxes, no NAIS, probably didn't know if it was a presidential election year or not, and didn't care.

Modern ranchers have to be psychologists, marriage councilors, labor negotiators, their own veterinarian and still deal with a lot of bad guys.

Today articles are published in every livestock magazine about wild and quasi livestock diseases that most people can't even pronounce by name. When, in truth, there is less real livestock disease in the USA than any time in history.

Scary articles are written on Foot and Mouth disease and how it would financially ruin a whole feed lot full of cattle in a 48 hour period. The other side of the story is omitted, that no cases of F & M have been in the USA in 80 years, cattle don't die from it if properly cared for and correctly processed meat is safe to eat if a steer positively has it.

Plastic ingestion is one real killer of cattle today with almost no known cure. No dozers will be seen on TV stacking dead cattle. There is no vaccination, no world wide USDA press releases about thousands of cattle dead every year. It is just a quiet and painful way for cattle to die with several difficult symptoms to confuse the issue.
Cow eating plastic
This yearling removed a piece of construction plastic from a barb wire fence. I tried to retrieve it but he was too "smart" and I could never get close enough to grab it. He stood about 20 feet away and ate the whole thing. He was in a pasture with several hundred steers his own age. The owner probably lost him and never had a clue why.

Hoss Cartwright didn't have to worry about plastic. The range was clean and no one was constructing a subdivision joining the Ponderosa. Today, much different, most people live within a mile of an open construction dumpster, trash pickup container or uncovered disposal site of plastic and litter. Add to that condition a strong wind and various plastics will float into your cattle grazing or growing areas. From bread wrappers hanging on a fence to grocery bags, hay bale wraps, weather balloons, party balloons, to pallet wrappings; some people even toss plastic bale strings on the ground. It is all lethal once inside a critter. Internally let a few hay strings wrap around a bread wrapper and you have a "deadly cow plug."

Plastic has various tastes. Some are sweet. Some have a salty taste. Cattle, like kids, will eat stuff that makes no sense at all. They are curious and have time on their hands. Many confined cattle are mineral starved and hunt for different tasty experiences. Most of the day they walk around searching for some new thing to eat or a gate not properly latched.

A vet friend once was called out to check a roping steer who was slowly withering away with water diarrhea; just getting poorer every day. He had lived from rodeo pen to pen. A number of tests were done for everything in the book. Nothing showed up by listening to the heart, or the lungs. He didn't have hardware. The blood was fine, he was a little bloated, drank a lot of water and had no energy. He finally died. He was posted and a whole pair of Levi pants were plugging up his stomach. Go figure?

Numerous postmortem cases have been solved when hay bale plastic wrappers were found.

Diarrhea is a symptom of half the cattle diseases and is about as numerous with sick people. Over a dozen things can go wrong with a bovine system involving diarrhea as a basic outward sign of trouble.

Small amounts of plastic can circulate right through the bovine system and no one notices; not the animal or the owner. Larger amounts can plug up the dozens of feet of digestive track and death is soon near. Some cattle will stop eating and some won't. Some stop bowel movements completely and some get water diarrhea. Normally the signs are not plain enough that surgery is a solution. Many times the cost of surgery, vagueness of diagnosis, and the value of the animal causes a decision to just do nothing.

The diarrhea is a misleading issue. It appears by the water movement that the system is cleaning itself out, but often, not so. The system is actually plugged up in some small area with a large expanded plastic covering and nothing is getting passed except liquid. The solids are spoiling and causing a bloat and blockage. Some have had success using laxatives (one gallon of mineral oil) which helps to break down the solids and liquefy the material increasing the chance of passage of the plastic. Most people do not apply heavy amounts of laxative because it seems just the opposite of a solution to a diarrhea problem. They may even administer treatment to tighten bowels, which compounds the problem more. Most cattle die within a week or so whether valuable or not.

Most owners never know the answer. Some blame the loss on hardware which is a good guess. Other plastic problems get diagnosed often as Johnes, BVD, Salmonella, Coccidiosis, e.coli, EHD, liver flukes and various parasites.

It would be nice if there was a vaccine or some method of correct identification of "plastic disease." It won't happen. No college grants will fund studies nor government subsidies be paid owners for losses. When a critter eats a large piece of plastic the end is often imminent and generally no one every knows why.

Some prevention is possible. I was looking at a herd last year and two times the owner stopped the truck, got out and picked up plastic in his pasture. I respect good managers. Obviously he was doing what he could. Who knows which piece of litter removed will save a $5000 show heifer?
Plastic in Dumpster
This open trash container released dozens of plastic problems when the north wind blew. It is just a matter of time until "plastic disease" is the result.

If you live in an area of the world with a lot of wind, plastic will be coming your way. In Colorado we lived about a half mile from a country grocery store. After a strong north west wind their dumpster released dozens of plastic wrappings across our pastures. I checked out their container and found they seldom closed the lid---just left it open to conveniently toss in more trash. After numerous verbal encounters they finally learned I was serious about them closing their lid. I considered it life or death to our livestock.

I have seen people with a sharpened stick and a litter sack on their four wheeler. As they do cattle checks plastic is stabbed and removed. In some places it is really a problem and not at all in others.

Plastic eating is not a real disease and many do not think this is an issue, but whether you know it or not, if you run a lot of cattle, you have lost some with plastic, or you will in the future. Most people never know it... and that is the big part of the problem. Now you know!