Common Spring and Summer Ailments in Livestock

Winter 2020-2021
Drawing by Toki Oshima
Drawing by Toki Oshima

By Jacki Perkins

As fall fades to winter and we hunker down in hopes of an early spring, we can ready ourselves to handle livestock health concerns that are common during the spring and summer months. Winter can be an excellent time to reflect on what we saw in our pastures over the past summer and how it might impact the health of our livestock. Most of the common ailments detailed below depend on weather, living conditions and animal health, but some of them are simply contagious.

Grass Tetany (Low Magnesium) & Milk Fever (Low Calcium)

Soils in Maine tend to be chronically low in both calcium and magnesium. During spring calving, lambing, kidding, etc., the birthing animal’s available blood calcium and magnesium becomes depleted, and early grasses do not provide enough of these minerals to replenish what has been lost. A deficiency can result in a shaky animal that may not be able to stand. Feeding supplements throughout the winter, as well as having the knowledge to treat grass tetany and milk fever (or a working relationship with a large animal veterinarian), can help to keep animals from undue suffering.

Pink Eye

Pink eye is a bacterial infection of the eye that occurs after the eye has suffered minor damage – often during dry, dusty summers or dirty, fly-ridden conditions. In dry circumstances, the dust is caught by the wind and excoriates the surface of the eye, leaving it vulnerable to infection. In wet conditions where manure removal is difficult and flies are allowed to multiply, it is the flies that transfer bacteria from one animal to another. Pink eye can be a serious ailment and if untreated can result in the loss of the eye. Mitigate these issues by controlling wet areas and by providing “oilers” for livestock to scratch their faces and backs on. Oilers are simply long cloth tubes stuffed with absorbent material that ranchers apply their favorite fly repellent to.

Hoof Issues

Feet and hoof issues usually manifest due to poor overall health of the animal and are exacerbated by unfavorable conditions. Make sure your animals have a well-rounded diet, routinely check their feet and trim their hooves, and keep them out of wet spots. In the event that issues do arise, ailments like hoof rot or hairy heel wart can be treated by funneling animals through a narrow section of laneway containing a foot bath, forcing them to step in the farmer’s choice of treatment. Abscesses should be assessed, treated and wrapped by a knowledgeable person.


Bloat is more commonly seen in dry years, as animals end up eating the toxic plants that, in years of historically normal rainfall, get crowded out by more choice forages. Keep soil seed banks of toxic plants low by clipping pastures. Rotate animals off pastures before they become over-grazed. Keep Pepcid on hand for mild cases of bloat and your veterinarian on call for anything severe.

Fly Strike

Fly strike is essentially a maggot infestation that occurs in sheep. Wet, soiled wool or minor injuries can attract flies, which lay their eggs on the sheep. The eggs hatch and the maggots feed on your sheep, spreading bacteria as they go. Infected animals run the risk of dying of septicemia. Monitor sheep for dark patches on their wool and general twitchiness. Prevention is much preferred to dealing with a maggoty mess; an herbal fly repellent will go a long way. Treatment requires removing the wool from the infected area, cleaning it with an antiseptic and monitoring for infection.

Pasture Injuries

Something as innocuous as a stick on the ground, when kicked up, can cause an injury. Goats love brambles and can get the branches of these delectable bushes lodged in their throats and slowly starve. Walk your fences routinely to make sure they are well-maintained and tight (especially if you use high tensile fencing), and monitor areas within the fence line for hazards that may have been buried or left by past generations, becoming unearthed as the pastures get used or reclaimed.

Cyanide Poisoning

In Maine the biggest culprits of cyanide poisoning are cherry trees and garden ornamentals – should livestock get out of their pastures and ingest them. Symptoms of poisoning include twitching, staggering, rapid breathing and death. It is best to avoid pasturing around cherry trees and to monitor fencing to ensure animals stay away from garden ornamentals.

Mites, Lice, Mange and Ringworm (aka “The Itchies”)

Animals with depressed immune systems can become the victims of various skin ailments. Adequate access to minerals and sunlight can help to prevent these. In the event that your livestock succumbs to “the itchies,” take care with how you handle them during treatment. Use gloves, and change your clothes and shower after handling stricken animals. Try to isolate them from other animals, and consult a veterinarian to help diagnose just which “itchy” it is. Fungal infections, like ringworm, warrant different treatment than an infestation of lice. Always watch livestock for repetitive scratching, loss of hair or feathers, and general unthriftiness.

One of the keys to successful animal husbandry is constant vigilance. Know your animals and know your ailments. Take the winter to prepare. After that, enjoy your summer.

Jacki Perkins is MOFGA’s organic dairy and livestock specialist. You can contact her at [email protected].

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