Hardware disease and worn tire feeders

Farm Forum

One of the most troubling events for a cattle raiser is when a cow starts going downhill for no obvious reason. This was certainly the case with Justin and Cow #1015.

Cow #1015 was a prime example of a cow at the core of a very productive Angus herd. She had raised four really good calves so far; one of her daughters was in the breeding herd as well. This year, she had just been confirmed pregnant and was due to calve in a couple months. Justin would love to have a hundred more just like her.

But a couple weeks ago, Justin started noticing #1015 acting differently. She started lagging behind the rest of the herd at feeding time. It got to the point where she no longer was interested in feed. Her belly took on a tucked-up appearance and it took Justin a long time to walk her up to the corral by the barn to separate her from the other cows. Using advice from his vet, Justin took her temperature – 104.2 degrees. He treated her with daily penicillin shots. As the days went on, #1015’s breathing became labored, and she made subtle “grunts” when she exhaled. Late on the third day, she could no longer stand up. It was not a big surprise when Justin found #1015 dead in her pen the next morning.

It really hurt to lose a cow like #1015. But especially troubling was the fact that Justin started to see a few other cows act slow and tucked up like she had. This was starting to turn into a nightmare. Neither he nor his vet knew what was affecting the cows. Would this be something that would run through the whole herd? The calves these cows were carrying – and the cows themselves – are so valuable now that Justin could not afford any more losses. The decision was made to take the dead cow to the SDSU Animal Diagnostic Lab.

Instead of a new exotic infectious disease, the vets at the lab found evidence of an “old school” disease in #1015 —“hardware disease.”

Hardware disease occurs in cows for a couple reasons. First, cows aren’t all that discriminating when it comes to eating. Nails or chunks of barbed wire lying in the feed will often go down the hatch along with the good stuff. Then secondly, there’s the cow’s own anatomy. One of their four stomachs, the reticulum, acts as a trap for foreign objects that are eaten. Sharp objects can poke through the inside of the reticulum. This allows gut bacteria to escape into the abdomen, resulting in infection and pain. In addition, the reticulum lies very close to the cow’s heart. If the hardware pierces the heart muscle or one of its blood vessels, death can quickly ensue.

The vets at the lab, though, did not find a typical nail or chunk of barbed wire. A four-inch-long thin, rigid wire poking through the reticulum was the cause of massive infection in the abdomen and chest. Justin and his vet were puzzled, since the wire wasn’t anything they recognized.

Justin went home and scoured the fencing around his cow lot and couldn’t find anything resembling what the lab found in #1015. But as he opened the gate to leave, a nearby tire feeder caught his eye. The rim of the feeder had the same thin wires sticking out from it. As the bead of the tire became worn, the wires were exposed. When cows would eat out of the feeders, the exposed wires would bend back and forth, breaking off and falling into the feed below. Justin looked over all of his feeders and a lot of them had these worn areas on top.

Recycled tires used as cattle feeders offer many advantages, decreasing waste and reducing feed contamination. But if they become worn, they can prove deadly for cattle. Make sure to inspect your tire feeders for this kind of wear before using them this winter. And as always, get a diagnosis from your vet or from the lab when unexpected cow deaths or illnesses appear. You might find the solution to preventing further problems is right under your cow’s noses.

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.