If you have a cow that suddenly stops its interest in food, this is cause for concern. But what should you do if your cow is not eating?
Experts agree that a cow who is not eating needs immediate attention. Diagnosing and treating the root cause of a hunger strike must be accomplished as quickly as possible to prevent the cow’s health from deteriorating.
This article will discuss the wide range of reasons a cow may stop eating, how to diagnose and treat eating problems, and what constitutes a healthy diet for cattle.
What makes a cow stop eating? (5 causes)
When a cow stop eating, it is essential to act quickly. The College of Veterinary Sciences at Oklahoma State University explains that cows are hardwired to show strength at all times.
A weak cow is a cow that is vulnerable to predators, which means a cow who is not eating is likely a cow in crisis.
It is essential to be aware of the factors that commonly contribute to a cow’s lack of interest in feeding to get to the bottom of the issue as quickly as possible.
There are multiple reasons a cow may stop eating. These include:
- Diseases, parasites, and illness
- Stress, discomfort, and injury
- Too many or too few companions
- Overfeeding or underfeeding
- Factors related to the feed and water availability/quality
#1: Disease, parasites, and illness
One of the reasons cows may avoid eating is due to infection. They may have contracted a disease or virus, or they could have become infected with parasites.
A cow with a reduced appetite could have health conditions like milk fever and mastitis or parasitic infections, such as worms.
There are a variety of tests your veterinarian can run to diagnose your cow if it has one of these problems.
#2 Stress, discomfort, and injury
Cows under stress, experiencing discomfort, or having sustained an injury are likely to reduce their food intake.
A cow who is too hot or has indigestion may turn its nose up at feed. It might be bothered by a particular noise or something else in its environment.
It could also have a foreign object in its foot or have sustained an injury when it scraped up against a barbed-wire fence.
It is essential to rule out any of these types of potential stressors which can put a cow at risk.
#3 Too many or lack companions
A cow who is feeling cramped may not be inclined to eat. Too many cows corralled in the barn might make for some unhappy feeders.
On the other hand, a lonely cow may also go on a hunger strike and decide to stop eating. Cows are more likely to eat when they have company.
#4 Imbalance diet
When a cow is overfed, its body condition score (BCS) is likely to increase. A fat cow is at risk for developing ketosis, which leads to a decrease in appetite.
Conversely, underfed cows can develop nutritional diseases that lead to less food intake.
#5 Feed and water availability and quality
Cows need to have regular access to clean, healthy feed and water. If water is contaminated or feed is moldy, this can result in diminished appetites.
Determine the nutrients given to your cow via its feed or forage. Alfalfa has more protein than hay, for instance, which means it is a better feed source for a cow in certain stages of calving.
It is also beneficial in winter when cows tend to shed more energy.
How do you get a cow to eat?
Now that you understand some potential issues causing your cow to stop eating, we can discuss how to get the cow to resume healthy eating habits.
How do I increase my cow’s appetite?
The most important steps to increasing a cow’s appetite are first to diagnose the problem and then to find a treatment.
Again, this needs to happen as soon as possible. Cows refusing food can take a turn for the worse in just 24 hours. Find and treat the cause of the problem as quickly as you can.
The Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee presents a list of questions for dealing with malnourished cattle. These can also apply in the case of a cow refusing feed.
To decide upon the best treatment, UT recommends you assess:
- The amount of time the cow has spent in its current location.
- Food and water sources, as well as amounts provided and availability.
- Any recent health issues or need for care.
- Age and pregnancy status of the cow.
Diagnosing and treating a cow may require careful observation. When an owner can quickly determine a cow’s needs and make the necessary changes, the cow will hopefully begin to eat again.
However, if the cause goes unfound, it is best to speak with a trained veterinary professional. Your vet can run blood tests and perform additional examinations.
Once you have a diagnosis, swift treatment must follow. Your veterinarian will give you guidelines for moving forward.
In an article written for Hoard’s Dairyman, Professor Trevor Devries from the University of Guelph explains the best way to increase a cow’s consumption.
For best results, you must ensure they have all-day access to high-quality feed. That means regularly checking that cows have enough food and water and providing that it is clean and looks appetizing.
It also means ensuring that cows have enough space to access the food without having to wait their turn for other cows to finish eating.
What if a cow goes undiagnosed?
Sometimes the cause of cattle distress goes undiscovered. In a study conducted by the Norwegian School of Veterinary Sciences, 125 dairy cows with feeding problems presented with ketosis, followed closely by those with indigestion or a combination of the two.
The remainder of the cows had mystery causes or liver disease along with ketosis, indigestion, or both. All cows received treatments that included multiple medications.
Most cows with ketosis responded well and resumed normal eating within a day. The bulk of the cows with liver disease and the undiagnosed cows continued to present with reduced appetite.
Even for professionals, obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding a treatment that works can be elusive. But a responsible caretaker will try every avenue to ensure animal welfare and humane treatment.
Sometimes a cow who is not eating will eventually lose the ability to stand. At this point, it may come down to the difficult decision to euthanize a cow who is beyond help.
This decision should come with careful consultation with your veterinarian.
How long can cows go without eating?
When presented with a cow who will not eat, you might ask, “How long can cows last without food?” While underfed cattle are at higher risk for disease and other issues, they can use their energy stores to survive for some time.
According to North Dakota State University, animals like cows can go for about 60 days without food. They would last only around seven days without water.
The value of clean water and good feed cannot be understated. The longer cattle go without the essential nutrients provided to them via feed and water, the more likely they will fall ill or die.
Hoard’s says cows prefer a routine that includes multiple activities crucial to their overall well-being, including 3-5 hours of feeding.
Some farmers believe the healthiest cows are given multiple opportunities to access feed throughout the day, while others get by on one or two feeding times daily.
If your family cow is chewing her cud, you know she has gotten enough to eat. It’s as simple as that!
Elements of good nutrition
Typically, a cow’s primary diet in the summer months includes pasture grasses. In winter, they are fed silage: fermented grasses or other crops, like corn, that have been preserved for feeding cattle in the drier months.
A balanced diet for a cow should include a large amount of forage. These include pasture grasses, hay, and silage.
Additionally, cows thrive when they are given grains and the leftovers of foods people eat. The average cow eats 100 pounds of feed per day along with drinking 30-50 gallons of water.
Cattle need their nutritional needs met at all stages of life to maximize wellness and prevent disease and other health conditions.
Experts recommend that cows need adequate amounts of calcium, vitamins A and E, and selenium to influence healthy calving and milk quality.
They recommend cattle minerals, protein supplements as needed, and stress management as the best nutritional foundation for your cows.
Signs your cow is healthy include:
- Spending an hour or more eating per day.
- Relaxing after eating.
- Chewing her cud.
- A clean and shiny coat.
As with most things, prevention is the key element of raising healthy cows. Keep your cattle up to date on vaccinations and provide them with regular access to high-quality food and water.
Ensure a clean and cow-approved environment. These steps will stave off any potential feeding problems and help to rehabilitate a cow if it has stopped eating.