As I write this, spring flooding is a huge concern for livestock raisers as well as everyone else, posing real risks for animals and the people entrusted with their care. Across those areas, cattle producers have been busy moving animals and feedstocks to high ground; animals and feed supplies have been lost in some areas.

As bad as it is, one thing we can count on is that the water will eventually recede. What’s left in its aftermath usually isn’t pleasant. One of those lingering effects we can count on this spring is mud.

A little bit of mud is a nuisance, but as it gets deeper, its effects become more profound. Feedlot mud depth has been negatively correlated with rate of gain. Even mud just to the dewclaw level reduces gain by 7%. By the time it’s up to the belly, a third of the animal’s potential weight production is lost every day.

That makes sense when you consider the effort – and energy expenditure – it takes for you yourself to walk through mud. Animals burn more calories moving from place to place through mud. Overall, cattle eat less when they have to wade through mud – compounding the negative energy situation.

Springtime mud sucks energy from cows and calves in other ways. When cattle stay wet from mud exposure, their haircoat is no longer is able to provide insulation against the cold, meaning the body has to burn more calories to maintain normal body temperature. While simply a nutritional nuisance for an older cow, it could mean life or death for a young calf, where chilling can quickly sap its ability to keep itself warm.

The ever-present moisture supplied by mud also can create issues for certain parts of the body. Mud that coats udders and teat ends can lead to mastitis. This infection of the udder further limits milk production and makes the nutritional landscape even worse for the nursing calf.

There’s no part of the body in more contact with mud than the feet. Persistent moisture between the toes can lead to an infection called foot rot. Like mastitis, the causative germs are ever-present in soil, manure, and mud. Chronic exposure to moisture breaks down the natural defenses of the skin and allows these bacteria to gain access to the tissue beneath the skin. The result is a painful, flesh-eating sore that puts a further damper on the cow’s desire to travel to feed and water.

And of course, muddy conditions are excellent for the survival and flourishing of germs that cause scours in calves. Cool temperatures and moisture are just what germs such as cryptosporidia, rotavirus, coronavirus, and coccidia prefer. When those pathogens build up in the environment, the likelihood of a calf encountering enough of them to get sick increases exponentially.

So, OK, mud is bad. And it’s usually not something easily fixed by cattle producers. My goal here is to remind people to look for the effects of mud on their animals and take steps to get ahead of those problems.

First off, remember that muddy conditions increase cows’ and calves’ energy demands; these problems are compounded by wet, cool weather. Adjusting rations to include more energy through concentrates such as cake, corn, or distillers grains will help offset the decreased feed intake and increased energy expenditures. When the temperature warms up, it’s tempting to not worry so much about those energy

demands, but when animals are consistently walking through mud, that energy level should be maintained.

Preventing mud-related disease issues is more challenging, but we can be vigilant for signs of foot rot, mastitis, and calf scours, and treat them early so complications don’t ensue. If the calving season is just getting underway, or hasn’t yet begun, pre-calving shots to cows and heifers may help calves deal with scours pathogens better. Planning out how to move pregnant cows in the manner of the Sandhills system has the potential to decrease scours risk as well as preserve some non-muddy locations for the animals.

Mud is a fact of life in spring on the Northern Plains – if we can’t prevent it, we can at least be aware of its effects and do what we can to keep them from getting worse.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.

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