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.