The Joys and Challenges of Grass-Fed Animals

There are few sights more iconic and evocative of the American Farm than a cow grazing on lush, green pasture.  While these animals thrive on grass, would you believe us if we told you those same, verdant pastures are one of the leading causes of death in cattle and sheep.  While it seems contradictory, too much moist, nutrient-rich grass can cause uncomfortable and sometimes fatal digestive issues for these animals.  Cows, sheep, and goats are all ruminants which means they have 4-compartment stomachs that are specifically designed to break down and digest grasses.  Grass stays in the ruminant’s digestive system for a long time fermenting and producing many gasses.  It takes time for the animals to transition from the dry hay and roughage that they are fed throughout the Winter to the nutrient rich and much more complex grasses that come up during the Spring, Summer, and Fall months.  You can liken it to going from a diet of nothing but plain rice to suddenly eating a meal of spicy food every night.  It would wreak havoc on the best of us.  This affect is amplified in ruminants because their stomachs are much more rich in bacteria and much easier for gasses to be trapped in the different compartments of their digestive system.  The trapped food ferments even further creating an over-abundance of gasses that have no where to go.  This is commonly called Bloat and without intervention, could cause animals great pain and sometimes death.

We experienced this first hand with our little pet lamb Harry.  He had his first taste of grass this Spring.  He couldn’t get enough of it and seemed happy.  Even though he was exposed to grass for short periods of time, this was enough to cause some significant Bloat in the little guy.  He seemed completely fine besides some serious distention of his belly and quiet panting.  A tell-tale sign of Bloat is that the left flank of the animal, where the rumen is located, is more distended than the right.  We noticed that this was the case with Harry and knowing how serious this could be immediately sought remedies for the situation.  One thing we found was that massaging the lambs belly and firmly, but gently squeezing the gasses out made a quick difference.  However in a span of 5 minutes, his stomach was already back to its over-extended state.  We learned that farmers often combine a mixture of one cup of water with 2 tablespoons of baking soda along with a 1/2 cup of vegetable oil works to make an all natural gas suppressant.  Harry wasn’t happy about it but he forced it down.  Within 30 minutes we had our happy, high-spirited lamb back to normal.  While researching, we realized how dire the situation could have been for Harry if we didn’t catch it when we did.  Bloat goes from discomfort to death often within a span of a few hours.  We found that it is very important to slowly transition the ruminants to the new Spring grass by giving them constant portions of hay while they get used to the new grass.

This was a little scary of a situation but we learned from it and Harry is doing great! Even though there can be some challenges to raising grass-fed animals, the benefits are abundant. These animals give so much to our land and they create so much food from something as simple as green grass.