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What Causes Bloat in Cows (+ Our Heartbreaking Story)

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Knowing what causes bloat in cows is the first step to prevent it from happening. But even for those who know about bloat in cows and what causes it, it still happens. Probably more often than you think.

I will never stop loving, learning about, and longing for dairy cows. Having Beulah, our first mini jersey cow, here on our homestead was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had. And when she started producing that creamy, delicious jersey milk after her first calving, I knew I could never go back. Raw milk is a staple food in our home.

But we recently went through a heartbreaking situation with Beulah. Unfortunately, this past May, we lost our beloved dairy cow–to a very bad case of bloat. It inspired me to write this post to help educate and bring awareness to how serious bloat can be. Perhaps it will help someone else know what to do if they come home to find their own cow dealing with an episode, as we did.

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mini jersey cow with horns in front of hot air balloon

Our Experience with Bloat in Cows

Last month, our family went away for the day to spend some time at a friend’s house. And following that, we went to go visit my husband’s parents. So, we were gone all day, from about 10am until 8:30pm, which is really rare for us. We almost never leave home for that long of a span during the day. At least one of us is pretty much always here.

Anyway, after we all got home, Stephen went outside to put Beulah in her stall, and I stayed in to get the kids ready for bed. When he came back in he asked me if I’d go check on her, because she was acting weird. So I did. She was in her stall, and she was massively bloated, looking much bigger than she ever did when she was pregnant. She was panting, lightly coughing, and struggling to breathe. It was a not a pretty sight.

Of course, this was catching me off guard. I wasn’t expecting this at all.

Now, looking back on the situation, I should have been a little more aware and probably could have made better decisions. But hindsight is always 20/20, right?

I knew that what she was dealing with was bloat. But I had never seen it firsthand before, and didn’t know how bad it was. Thankfully, we have an amazing community to support us here. I called my one friend with cows, along with another friend with homestead experience, and they came right over.

The Unthinkable Result of Cattle Bloat

I had heard that whenever a cow is bloated, you want to keep them moving. That’s because if they lay down, they may not get up again. Keeping them moving helps expel any excess air in the rumen.

So I was leading Beulah around the field, and she was moving pretty well. She had tried to lay down a couple of times before I got her out of the stall, but once I led her out she stayed up. I thought that was a good sign…

We had olive oil we were preparing to give her in either a tube or a bottle, and I knew there were other things we could do, too. At this point though, I was beginning to realize how serious the situation was. I was trying not to be frantic. I was already on the phone with the vet to see what she had to say.

After I told her what was going on, she suggested giving detergent instead of oil. For some reason, the vet didn’t seem overly concerned. She did ask if I wanted her to start heading over, but that she was 45 minutes away. (I don’t know how she lived so far away, because the vet’s office is only 10 minutes from here. I had never worked with this particular vet on call before so I guess she just lived further away.)

As we were preparing the detergent to try and get in her, the worst happened. Beulah suddenly collapsed. Within a minute, she stopped responding.

tiffany dawn with a mini jersey cow in pasture

How Fast Bloat in Cows Progresses

It all happened so fast. From the time we got home and found Beulah, to her being dead, 30 minutes or less had passed.

If I had known how bad it was and what the outcome was going to be, I would have punctured her rumen immediately. I just wasn’t confident enough at the time. Perhaps if I had done a little more research on this situation, I would have been more prepared to do so.

I knew about bloat, but I guess I never thought or believed it would get to this point for us. I just always assumed we would catch it sooner.

All I can say now is that she’s gone. And it’s devastating. I hope that by sharing our story and what I’ve learned about bloat in cows, I can help bring greater awareness to others that have or are thinking about getting a family cow.

What is bloat in livestock?

Bloat is basically indigestion caused by excess gas in the rumen. The digestive process naturally creates gas, which is normally eliminated by belching. Pasture, or “frothy” bloat can be the most dangerous type, because if the foam bubbles caused by lush pasture are not released, the pressure pushes on the lungs. This pressure can cause death by suffocation very quickly. And this is the type of bloat we were dealing with in Beulah.

mini jersey cow in pasture with electric fence

What Causes Bloat in Cows

I knew wet clover was not a good thing for cows to consume a lot of. Clover (along with alfalfa) typically grows very lush when young and is low in fiber. This type of forage is what most often causes bloat. We’ve had a lot of clover in our field this year. In May, it was quite thick.

It had also rained the day before Beulah died. She had been in this particular paddock for a couple of days already, but I believe the combination of the clover and the rain is what caused the bloat.

Particularly hungry cows are more likely to develop bloat after coming onto pasture containing more than just fescue grass. But we never turned her out onto pasture on an empty stomach, because she always got organic grain in the mornings during milking and had hay available in her stall. The fact that Beulah was not yet fully transitioned to spring pasture could have been what contributed to the bloating.

Several of the risk factors were there, but not all of them. Beulah had been grazing on our land for two years already with no problems, and we didn’t foresee it.

Ways To Prevent The Causes of Bloat in Cows

Here is a quick list to help you remember how to prevent bloat in cows:

  1. Avoid putting cows on heavy legume/clover/alfalfa pastures immediately after a heavy dew or light frost.
  2. Try to place your cow on pastures that are more than 50% grass at the beginning of spring.
  3. Ensure your cow has already had plenty to eat (hay or organic grain) before being put out to pasture on spring mornings.
  4. Wait until the pasture is dry after a morning dew or frost before turning out your cow.
  5. Check on your cows every couple of hours during spring grazing.
  6. Rotate your paddocks in a way that keep your cow from getting excessively hungry.
  7. Have gentle detergent like this and a drench or tube ready in case treatment is needed.
  8. If you find that your cow has frequent episodes of bloat, it may be worth it to cull or sell the animal.

More Family Cow from Growing Dawn

Our First Year of Cow Ownership: 4 Mistakes

Homestead Dairy Cow: Genetics and What To Look For

4 Reasons To Own and Love A Family Cow Right Now

How Many Acres Does A Cow Need?

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  1. Wow, I am so sorry you experienced this. There are so many variables when raising livestock, outcomes can truly be heartbreaking (While not the same, we’ve lost many small chicks to my children’s dismay). Thank you for putting this out there and letting others learn from your experience!

  2. Oh no! This is horrible. I’m so sorry you lost your sweet cow… This is such great information to have. We haven’t got any land yet to be able to have a dairy cow, but we have hopes for the future. I’m so sorry you had to learn this lesson the hard way. Thank you for sharing your story with others!

  3. So sorry about your loss, Tiffany. Hopefully sharing the story with others—so they can better help their cows—helps you heal.

  4. I’m so sorry…. This must have been so difficult to share. Thank you for sharing your experience.