Hardware Disease in Cattle

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Hardware disease, also known as traumatic reticuloperitonitis, is really not a disease at all. It is an injury to the reticulum caused by ingestion of such things as small pieces of wire, nails, staples and other small metal objects. The symptoms of hardware disease include depression, a poor appetite, and a reluctance to move. Cattle may have indigestion and exhibit signs of pain when defecating and may stand with an arched back. A “grunt” can often be heard when the cow is forced to walk. If the object penetrates close to the heart and migrates forward, a fatal infection can sometimes occur.

Hardware disease occurrence seems to on the rise, and there could be many reasons why. The use of large steel-belted tires for water and mineral troughs and feed bunks is more prevalent now. Thin wires exposed from the worn steel belt can break off and fall into the tire feeder or water tank and cattle may ingest these fragments of metal that are mixed in with the feed. While the metal fragments from steel-belted tires are often implicated in hardware disease, barbed wire fencing, high tensile wire, screws, staples and roofing nails can also be the culprits in hardware disease cases.

These ingested metal objects settle in a chamber of the stomach known as the reticulum, which “catches” all heavy objects that are ingested, while feed and lighter materials pass back into the rumen. When the digestive muscles contract, the metal object may be forced through the wall of the reticulum, diaphragm and heart sac.

Diagnosis of hardware disease can prove difficult as many other diseases mimic the signs of hardware disease. Squeezing the cow’s backbone just above the withers can indicate hardware disease, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. If the animal forcibly grunts during this test, the pain can be traced to the front half of the cow, which indicates that hardware disease could be the problem. When hardware disease is suspected, placing a rumen magnet into the reticulum with a balling gun can sometimes cure the problem. Once the magnet settles in the reticulum, many times the hardware will attach, and be drawn away from the stomach wall and held in check by the magnet. Then a broad-spectrum antibiotic should be administered to help control infection. Close confinement of the animal will allow time for the stomach to repair where the hole was created. Cattle with widespread infection in the abdominal cavity or in the heart have a very little chance of recovery, and most will die of starvation in spite of attempts to get them to eat.

Magnets function best as a preventative, being placed in healthy cattle before they have ingested metal fragments or “hardware”. This way, once metal is ingested, it adheres to the magnet and is captured in the reticulum for the life of the cow. The magnet’s presence confines the foreign metal objects and limits the damage done. We might be astounded to find what a magnet actually traps during the life of a cow. Many slaughter and packing- houses report an inordinate amount of metal objects collected by magnets when they are examined postharvest.

Preventing sharp, heavy objects from contaminating feed and feed bunks is critical. Most feed mills run processed feed through a magnetic field to remove as many foreign objects as possible from the feed, however, as producers, we must strive to remove all we can from farm mixed feeds and forage. Pieces of rake teeth, tedder teeth, broken sickles, screws, gate hooks and pieces of high tensile wire can all culprits in hardware disease. Cattle will often take large mouthfuls of feed and swallow without any chewing. This indiscriminate eating pattern predisposes cattle to hardware disease especially when bunk fed, which explains how these foreign materials are introduced to the digestive system. Cattle eating hay or long forage generally stop to chew, so metal contained in hay bales is often dropped, or falls out before ingestion, but cattle on a total mixed ration where the forage is ground and mixed with grain are generally more likely consume any metal fragments present in the feed.

In conclusion: If you will make a conscious effort to clean up after fencing, doing in the field repairs, construction and thoroughly inspect steel-belted tires used on your farm as hay feeders and/or water or mineral troughs, you can rest assured that you have helped to reduce the incidence of hardware disease on your farm. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.