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Dirt toxicity in cattle

If you see your cattle dining on dirt, there may be something missing in their diet.

All cattle ingest small amounts of dirt as they graze, but if they're searching out bare soil to eat there's a problem. If you see your cattle dining on dirt, there may be something missing in their diet.

Radio interview source: Dr. Mike Hutjens, Extension Dairy Specialist, University of Illinois

Listen here: Dirt toxicity in cattle

All cattle ingest small amounts of dirt as they graze, but if they're searching out bare soil to eat there's a problem. Eating sand, licking the ground underneath a fence, and happily munching on a newly-discovered mound of soil isn't normal bovine behavior.

Extension dairy specialist Mike Hutjens, at the University of Illinois, says there could be several reasons why cattle decide to dine on dirt.

"First, you should check the level of fiber in the ration to make sure there's no acidosis going on. Does the cow sense this and she tries to take something to correct that? You and I would take a Tums. They might eat dirt," says Hutjens. "Some minerals might be involved. We know animals sometimes eat dirt if they're very deficient in phosphorous or salt."

It could also be that the cow is just bored and is eating dirt to pass the time. No matter the reason, Hutjens says it can have serious health implications. Dirt and sand settle in the base of the rumen, and if enough is ingested the cow's digestive system can become negatively influenced, resulting in lower feed intake.

There are no specific tests to determine if the cow is eating too much dirt, so good observation skills are a must. You may notice she's off-feed, feeling weak, or devouring a mouthful of soil. If you suspect a problem, there are steps you can take.

"I would number one, evaluate my rations to make sure that there are adequate amounts of physical fiber and chemical fiber in there and not too much grain or starch related to the rumen aspect," says Hutjens. "Number two I'd double check my mineral program to make sure that I have an optimum amount of macro-micro minerals out there in the feeding program."

Hutjens advises monitoring the consumption of added minerals such as salt. If the cow is eating dirt because of a lack of sodium in the diet, she'll seek out the salt first.

Beware of dirt toxicity in cattle - University of Minnesota Extension

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