In an art as old as the origins of agriculture, reading cattle dung signs provides valuable indicators to feed and gut efficiencies, production and animal health. Ongoing monitoring of dung is an essential part of your observational toolbox, providing insights for rapid action. Over 80% of animal health and milk and meat production comes down to having healthy rumen function. Therefore, keeping an eye on what comes out the back end, is essential to driving the front end of your livestock enterprise.
Many farmers and ranchers are aware that loose manure can be a sign of too much dietary protein and/or a deficiency in fibre, while firm manure is a sign of low protein or excess fibre. However, there are far more nuances to reading dung that a casual observer may first surmise. Taking action when reading manure can turn waste into profit, quickly identifying feed imbalances, animal illnesses may be often reflected in manure before other vital signs show up.
Cattle, bison and sheep have a rumen, a super charged fermentation unit which digests hard to break down plant carbohydrates. In essence we are not feeding cows, but feeding their microbial partners, the bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi and yeasts and protozoa contained in the gut.
The gut fungi are totally unique from all other fungi as they live in an anerobic environment, and as they do not breathe oxygen they do not have mitochondria. They have a motile stage, where they visibly look like flagellates zipping around the rumen as well as a vegetative phase for reproduction. These fungi are contained in ruminant saliva and manure, and can exist in a resting stage for long periods of time outside of an animal. Studies have demonstrated that the active presence of these fungi increases milk fat and milk production as well as increases in digestibility and positive changes in rumen pH, ammonia and volatile fatty acids. Overall, this all contributes to improved feed efficiencies and animal health. Just like in the soil, when fibre and cellulose are low in the diet, the beneficial fungi disappear. Providing a diversity of feed to these microbes ensures a healthy digestive tract.
To feed the fungi and slow the passage of foods through the rumen a ruminant diet needs 5-10% long fibre (5 to 10 cm or 2″ to 4″ in length) and for optimal fermentation. Some of these materials can be very resistant to breakdown, which is where the process of cudding is so essential. Cudding is the process whereby a ruminant brings up a bolus of partially digested food, and chews on it some more, before swallowing and bringing up the next mouthful, potentially as often as 30,000 chews can happen in one day. Watching cattle’s faces when they’re cudding you could be forgiven for thinking they’re in a meditative state, which in fact scientists have shown that the EEG brainwave patterns are in fact similar to deep sleep.
A mature cow may spend 8 hours, chewing her cud, producing between 100 and 150 liters (26-45 gallons) of saliva every day! Not only creating a sense of wellbeing, cudding also stimulates saliva production, balancing the pH of the rumen, and further breaking up and digesting larger food particles. Any stresses, illness, calving, changes in diet and disruption to cudding, can lead to an upset stomach and be revealed in the field.
I believe it was grazier Greg Judy who I once heard say that cattle on pasture should have manure the consistency of pumpkin pie. Others describe the perfect cow pat as having the texture of porridge or a pile of shaving cream. Ideally manure should stand up around 4cm (1.5”) and have 3-6 circular ripples, with a divot in the middle. To assess how well food is being digested, tread on a dung pat and lift off again. Do this on several pats to get an average. Ideally food particles should be completely digested, with an even consistency. Look to ensure that few grain or fiber fragments (greater than 0.64 cm or ¼ inch in length) are visible in the manure. If there is larger fragments, something is disrupting digestion.
Manure scoring as a feed indicator is only done with healthy animals. The following is a list of possible indicators for health, do not replace advice from your local veterinarian.
|Dung Sign||Possible Cause||Action|
|Ideal Manure score 3||Good balanced diet||Keep it up!|
Stacked up higher than 5 cm (2”), with rings and firm – herd. Manure score 5
|Rings are an indicator of lower forage quality, excess fibre or inadequate protein or sugars. Rate of passage has slowed down to the point that excess water has been reabsorbed in the intestines. Not good food for dung beetles. Could also be dehydration.||Increase the nutrient density, energy and/or protein to meet nutrient requirements and maintain body condition score. Ensure access to water at all times.|
|Loose sloppy manure – whole herd.||Excess protein or inadequate energy. Not enough for gut fungi. Sudden change in feed type.||Balance the energy and protein. Increase fibre. Slowly introduce new feed sources to allow the rumen microbes to adjust.|
|Loose, sloppy manure, can be individuals or entire herd||Parasites||Test for worms|
|Loose, sloppy manure, can be individuals or entire herd||Nutritional imbalances||A deficiency in copper or selenium can lead to scours. As can an excess of boron or molybdenum (as a excess Mo leads to a deficiency in Cu).|
|Bubbly dung and uneven dung consistency between cows. Some cows may have stacked up manure.||Acidosis, excess concentrates, poor feed transition. Cows with acidosis can go off their feed causing the stacked manure.||Increase fibre in the diet, supplement humates or live yeast. Balance diet. Avoid large hits of concentrates. Slowly introduce new feed.Test saliva pH- it should be between 6.5 to 7.0, acidosis the pH will be around 5.5 (you can test pH with spa pool test strips!) When the pH drops below 6 you have an early warning sign for many metabolic issues, take the animal aside and treat with the following: 500 grams of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), 20 grams of magnesium oxide and 40 grams of humate. Mix well. Add enough water to make two liters of solution. Administer 100 ml per 100 pounds of body weight through a stomach tube. Following this supplement with Active dry yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) or EM.
Consult your veterinarian regarding whether additional treatments are necessary.
|Bubbly dung, looks like pea soup. – Individuals||Johnes disease,
|Speak to your vet|
|Dung containing mucus tags (when fresh)||Mycotoxins||Supplement with humates or bentonite. Identify the source of mycotoxin, if in silage-improve silage management. If in the grass, then address your soil health program.|
|Dung containing mucus tags (when fresh)||Inflammation or injury to gut tissue.||Possibly caused by extensive hindgut fermentation and low pH. May indicate potential disease.|
|Infectious diseases Poisoning
|Speak to your Vet regarding testing and actions for Salmonella, IBR, BVD, Rotavirus, E-coli.
If poisoning, identify the source and remove.
Hygiene clean-up in calf raising/calving areas. Spray EM (Effective Microorganisms) around affected areas.
|Manure smells bad||Illness. Starch that is not digested increases many odor-causing compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia.||Some feeds are more difficult to completely digest, like dry-rolled corn. Keeping animals on a more balanced natural ratio, reducing grain products in the diet will help. Stress and acidosis and illnesses which all alter the rumen pH and alter digestion can all increase ‘bad’ smells.|
|Colour is ‘off’||Manure colour is determined by the feed going in, amount of bile and digestion efficiency and speed. Pasture raised animals will have a different colour than those on grain.||Gray colors can be seen with diarrhea. Watery, yellow or pale green manure may be due to salmonella or other bacterial infections. Dark or bloody manure is a call for immediate action; blood in manure could be due to mycotoxins, dysentery or coccidiosis. Whenever manure colour changes rapidly without an obvious reason such as a change in feed, further investigations or a vet are required. Administer 40 grams of humate as a drench, and provide free choice.|
And last, but not least, a round of applause for the ideal cow pat, sounding like a slow hand clap when it hits the ground!
By Nicole Masters
Saxena, S., Sehgal, J., Puniya, A. and Singh, K., 2010. Effect of administration of rumen fungi on production performance of lactating buffaloes. Beneficial Microbes, 1(2), pp.183-188.
Fliegerova, K., Kaerger, K., Kirk, P., & Voigt, K. (2015). Rumen fungi. In Rumen microbiology: from evolution to revolution (pp. 97-112). Springer, New Delhi.
Chaucheyras‐Durand, F., et al. “Live yeasts enhance fibre degradation in the cow rumen through an increase in plant substrate colonization by fibrolytic bacteria and fungi.” Journal of Applied Microbiology 120.3 (2016): 560-570.
Are you obsessed with the weather? Is how much rain you got, or how dry it is frequently the first topic of conversation? This is a common affliction for those of us who manage land. We live intrinsically attuned to the weather and the cycles of the seasons. It is rare to meet a farmer or rancher who does not diligently record their rainfall. In a group of farmers I worked with a few years ago, a group member who was a new property owner and recently moved to our district from the city was amazed to hear how ALL of the other farmers in the group kept rainfall records. This was such a foreign concept to her, yet those of us born and bred on the land do this without questioning it.
We clearly acknowledge the role that the amount and timing of rainfall plays in the profitability of our business as farmers. We always know how much rain has fallen into our rain gauge. Yet how many of us know how effectively we make use of the rain that falls on our landscape? Rainfall provides us with valuable water essential to our farming system, and to life, for free. Rainfall is widely recognised as a key driver of farm profit as well as being a key driver of farm losses when we fail to receive enough rain or when we receive rain in excess or at the wrong time.
Given this obviously strong relationship of rainfall to profit why is rainfall use efficiency not the number one priority for all land managers? Even when we pay a high price for water in irrigated systems we still see soils that struggle to absorb and store valuable moisture for plant growth to make the most efficient use of this precious resource. Often when we pay for something we value it more highly, yet this does not seem evident with respect to irrigation water, which is commonly stored in bulk in dams where lots of it gets lost to evaporation.
Rainfall use efficiency investigations undertaken on 1700 farms in northern NSW Australia (2012, Gardiner & Gammie) found rainfall use efficiency varied from 6% to 70% with an average of just 21%. This clearly shows plenty of room for improvement. It is highly likely that this is far worse now. Industrial agricultural practices such as clearing, burning, cultivation, synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, over grazing, bare chemical fallows and the like have depleted the carbon in our soils. Our soils have structurally collapsed and these degraded soils cannot absorb water when it rains. Water either runs off creating erosion and increasing the incidence of flooding, or the water sits on the soil surface, unable to infiltrate into the soil until it is lost to the system due to evaporation. With the water cycle broken, soils get progressively drier and we effectively create our own droughts. Here in Australia we have a notoriously variable climate with frequent dry spells so why do we continue with agricultural practices that make matters even worse?
It seems that by resigning ourselves to the fact that we can’t control the weather and influence how much rain we receive we have forgotten to look for the aspects of the water cycle that are within our control as land managers. Our land management can influence soil health through rebuilding soil carbon, improving the ability of our soils to absorb water when it rains and store this water for plant growth. With every 1% of soil carbon we can store an additional 144,000 litres per hectare of water EVERY time it rains! We can reduce losses of water due to evaporation and run off by keeping soils covered at all times. Drought does not create bare ground, our management does. Even if we captured just half of the water that is currently evaporating think about how much more resilience to droughts we would have!
The value of managing land to conserve water in our landscapes is clear when you consider climate data. Table 1 shows climate data gathered from the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia for locations in 5 states to demonstrate average pan evaporation measurements as compared to average annual rainfall. In every case evaporation is higher than rainfall. If we want to maximize farm profits, and reduce the impact of climate variability then focusing on reducing water losses to evaporation through improved soil health is crucial and this is within our control.
|Annual average rainfall (mm)||Annual average pan evaporation (mm)|
Table 1. Figures obtained from Bureau of Meteorology.
Managing to improve rainfall use efficiency includes focusing on
- Maintaining living ground cover
- Growing a diverse range of annual and perennial plants to enable rain to be used when it falls
- Managing for high soil organic matter
- Nurturing soil biological activity to maintain soil health
- Avoiding practices that lead to compaction
- Improving soil structure
- Slowing transpiration by maintaining shelter
- Matching land use to land capability
- Protecting riparian areas
What we measure we can manage and improve, what doesn’t get measured, managed or improved generally contributes to a growing list of unintended consequences in farming ecosystems that quietly compound out of sight and out of mind until a major catastrophe brings our attention to them. Here in Australia record breaking drought and wild fires are screaming at us to pay attention to the water cycle.
Start paying attention to the water cycle in your landscape by measuring and recording water infiltration rates for your soil. You can find instructions for this simple test here. I also encourage land managers to take those rainfall charts and start to record the production you are achieving in your business per millimetre of rain. Keep it simple. Work out the most appropriate time period for rainfall to contribute to your output and see how many tonnes of grain, kilograms of meat or wool etc you produced per millimetre of rain that fell. Track this in line with your regenerative farming practices and over time this will tell you if your land management practices are taking you where you want to go.
With the focus all agricultural land managers have on rainfall, nothing will speak more loudly about the benefits of regenerative farming practices, and improve the rate of adoption of these methods, than becoming living proof that regenerative farmers get ALL the rain.
Written by Kim Deans.
Kim is available for coaching to empower you to create a thriving, profitable and regenerative farm business.
Email email@example.com Ph +61 0455 596 46
Reference: Gardiner & Gammie (2012) “Economics, productivity and natural resources in agricultural systems.” Proceedings of the 16th ASA Conference. http://agronomyaustraliaproceedings.org/images/sampledata/2012/8054_6_gardiner.pdf