I feed my dairy girls grain on a regular basis. When they produce high-quality milk for most of the year and have babies every year, they need the extra nutrients and energy. Not only that, they love grain and enjoy the treat.
There are times of the year when their grain ration is low or eliminated. A typical time for this is when I am ending their lactation and need them to stop producing milk. When I start them back on grain, I have to do it gradually or there may be serious complications.
One spring, I had two sheep who ate two much grain. One ewe, Daisy, who was very pregnant with twin lambs had a little spider bite or some sort of tiny injury just above one of her hooves. It was so small I didn’t see it until I noticed her limping and closely examined her leg. She had enough pain that she didn’t walk to the hay but would nibble on what was close enough. When I grained the sheep, she was willing to run over and fight for grain like usual, but she had not been eating hay as she normally did.
The other ewe, Camelia, had jumped into a creep pen. I’m not sure how she did it, but she got in to where only the kids and lambs went and had free-choice grain. She gorged on the grain, eating far more than usual. With some work, we were able to get her out of the pen.
The next morning I found Camelia, laying in the shelter panting and seemed to be in an altered mental state. With my limited nursing experience, I thought she acted like I’ve seen humans with type 1 diabetes who have ketoacidosis – inadequate insulin resulting in high blood sugars, cells burning protein for energy, and producing acidic blood. Granted, I know she's not a human, but some physiology is similar.
My first step was to get her on her feet and feed her baking soda to neutralize some of the acid in her system. When I tried to stand her up, she was weak and wouldn’t stand. I mixed the baking soda with water and used a syringe without a needle to squirt it down her throat. She swallowed it. When it made it to her stomach, it was enough to react with the acids there and it produced large amounts of gas. Poor Camelia inflated like a balloon.
I had some needles for cattle injections. I used one to release the air from her stomach because she was not belching any of it. The bloating creates a lot of pressure on her lungs and makes it difficult to breath and can rupture their stomach, so doing nothing about bloat would certainly be fatal in this case. If she would stand, I would have her on her feet and walking, but she was past that point. I continued to manage the bloating and tried to get her to improve. I felt pessimistic because she had fairly advanced metabolic acidosis.
As I treated sweet Camelia, I noticed Daisy sitting in the straw watching while the other sheep and goats were out feeding. Daisy was also taking deep fast breaths, and this is when I realized she hadn’t been eating hay or anything significant except grain. I then shifted my efforts to managing both sheep instead of just the one. Daisy wasn’t as ill as Camelia.
Both ewes seemed to improve within 45-60 minutes. Camelia did better for about an hour or two (I was with them all day), then she started groaning and the sparkle in her eyes that was already dim seemed to get weaker. She didn’t respond well when I talked to her or moved her. The bloating was under control, but I couldn’t treat her adequately to get her to recover and she died.
Daisy seemed to be a few hours behind Camelia in her illness and not as severe. She bloated less and I was able to get her on her feet. An hour or so after Camelia died, Daisy began nibbling on hay and took regular food again. Even though she wanted to lie down, we had her on her feet and moving a little. Daisy and her two unborn ewe lambs survived.
I’ve read a fair deal about grain poisoning since these two sheep were ill. Even after they seem to respond, they are fragile for the next day or two. Make sure they don’t get any grain during this period. Of my livestock species (sheep, goats, cattle, horses), sheep seem most susceptible to it. I suspect it’s because it takes larger binges for cattle and goats have faster digestive systems and therefore aren't quite as sensitive. Aside from giving them metabolic acidosis (acidic blood), it also caused inflammation in their digestive tract. I think about Camelia’s moaning and suspect she had a serious stomach ache. I have read that administering an antibiotic may help, but I haven’t tried it.
If your ruminants get into grain and they are on their feet, be sure to offer them free choice baking soda. Don’t wait for them to act like something’s wrong. I try to keep this available to mine at all the times. Make changes in diet gradually. Even changing hay can sometimes give them bloat, such as if going from a grass (orchard, meadow, timothy) to a legume (alfalfa, clover). If they have baking soda available to them, they will often manage it themselves.
If you have one that you know or suspect has eaten too much grain, watch her closely. Signs of problems include less vigor and not competing to eat, or not eating as well as usual. Lying down more often, especially without chewing her cud. My sheep hold their ears horizontally, but have a bit of a droop when they don't feel so well. If they get to the point that they won't stand and have a low temperature (cool mouth), you may wan to consider a quick slaughter. I haven't done that, but from my very limited experience and research, that seems like the point of no return.
For visitors to the farm, hopefully this makes sense why we feed our animals grain, but not all-they-can-eat. It’s fun to feed them by hand and they love it, but they will definitely over-eat and possibly with very bad results in the end.
Wife to Brandon, mother to Tess and Liam, farmer, entrepreneur, cook & baker, nurse, and accountant who loves to try new things, travel, and work toward greater self-reliance.