At this time of year, botulism or lead poisoning events can happen out of the blue on the farm. Both are very worrying experiences and can be devastating.
Lead poisoning tends to crop up when ground gets dry and often when cows dig into ditches or start to display signs of PICA. By digging in ditches in a quest for stones etc, they often unearth materials that have been buried for a while.
Symptoms are swift in onset and result in cattle becoming weak, staggering and going down swiftly and usually posing a threat to the animal’s life.
Lead poisoning can be linked back to cattle licking lead batteries or piping or even paint. They only have to consume small amounts to have catastrophic effects.
Old fence batteries are a common cause, but also for those near roads – there is always the risk of someone dumping batteries over the fence into fields.
Botulism also occurs suddenly if animals are exposed to a toxin produced by Clostridia bacteria.
It has similar symptoms to lead poisoning – cattle develop muscle weakness and gradually become paralyzed; and as breathing becomes restricted. Death can be very sudden.
- Clostridia bacteria are anaerobic spore-forming bacteria that occur naturally in the environment;
- They can produce a neurotoxin called botulinum, which is one of the most potent toxins known to mankind;
- The ingestion of clostridia by an animal can cause exposure to this toxin and may lead to the onset of what is known as botulism. The toxins that affect cattle do not affect humans.
Typical botulism outbreaks can occur when animals are accidentally exposed to material that contains decaying animal carcasses such as, poultry litter or slurry, silage, or other feedstuffs. Cattle may also inadvertently consume contaminated soil – eg cattle being fed on bare earth or being fed unwashed potatoes. Unfortunately, the smallest trace can cause serious issues.
Botulism outbreaks tend to be rarer than lead poisoning, however, either can be devastating for the herd and the farmer.
It is a stressful situation to have to work through and on-farm and vigilance is key to prevention.
- Be vigilant on the farm for any sudden illness outbreak and examine animals closely;
- Always check grazing animals have good grass cover;
- Always check the ditches of roadside paddocks for any rubbish;
- Ensure animals are not exposed to high-risk materials such as poultry litter, building rubble, or debris;
- If a neighbouring tillage farm is spreading poultry litter, ensure your animals are not grazing near the area where it is being spread or stored. Immediately remove them to the furthest away paddocks while the litter is being stored, spread, and incorporated into the soil;
- If storing feed in silos or lofts, empty and clean these regularly so that birds, rodents, and foxes can’t gain access;
- Check drinking troughs regularly for dead animal carcasses, especially when letting animals into a fresh paddock/field.
Notify the following people immediately if you have a number of animals die suddenly on a farm:
- Vet – Botulism is always suspected when animals suddenly die, your vet will clarify and give guidance;
- Milk Quality Manager – let them know immediately if there are any concerns. Managers can be of assistance on the farm and help farmers to manage through the practicalities of this devastating disease;
- Try to identify the source of the problem and remove animals from the affected area immediately;
- Immediately provide a different feed source than the one your animals were consuming when symptoms first appeared while working out what is happening;
- Isolate animals if they start to show symptoms. Animals can still start showing signs of paralysis a week after they were last in contact with contaminated feed or water.