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Hardware Disease

November 5, 2013

Most cow folks I know keep a cow magnet or two on their fridge.  Sure, they hold the photos on real tight, but they are usually on the fridge so you can find them.  We have lots of other magnets on the fridge too, but none near as important as a cow magnet.  Old farms and new farms have about the same chance of cattle dying of hardware disease.  Hardware disease in cattle is not the same thing as hardware disease in husbands.  With cows, it involves ingesting pieces of metal or wire, and with husbands it’s usually the affliction that causes them to go to farm sales and auctions and drag home junk good stuff.  Both can be fatal… .

dog jumping, Belly Acres logging, honeymoon, garden plowing

dog jumping, Belly Acres logging, honeymoon, garden plowing

On old farms you have old bone yards of equipment, ancient fencing with wire and staples, and just general odds and ends.  Goodness knows I turn up some piece of farm flotsam almost daily in my travels on this thirteen decade old farm.  With new farms you have construction debris and workers not in the know, or on old farms with repairs you have construction debris too, and even with workers in the know, stuff happens.

For the roofing project we put down used greenhouse plastic sheets that we have kept for just such projects.  Usually they reside on the stacked compost rows, but catching nails trumps compost covering.

Cedar Shakes and mucho nails!

Cedar Shakes and mucho nails!

You know how it goes, a nail goes flying, or worse yet a roofing screw and into the grass no less.  Grass that a cow or calf will probably be grazing at some point.  Gah!  No one even wanted to tell me about the bucket of nails that fell through the sheathing during this project.  That info kind of slipped out, like info has a habit of doing…I didn’t fuss, we’re only human.  But we did give Jane a magnet for added insurance, since her winter quarters are in the building that received the new roof.

You never get them all

You never get them all

I wanted to start putting Jane in for the night starting Sunday,  So on Saturday I made what was probably my third round of due diligence checking the feeders, and all the bedding in the loafing shed, and any place I thought she might be snuffling around during her nights in.  I didn’t find anything and crossed my fingers that her magnet would do the trick.

Last piece of roofing

Last piece of roofing

It’s not that cows go out of their way to eat metal, it’s more how they eat by tearing off big mouthfuls of forage that gets them in trouble.  With no top teeth to bite with like sheep or horses, they aren’t so apt to feel a piece of metal and once they swallow it, they run the risk of a puncture internally, and if that doesn’t happen they just may have a low-grade infection which contributes to general malaise, affecting weight gain or milk production.  The magnet works by hopefully attracting the metal if it does get swallowed and can keep the offending hardware in place so it can’t migrate.  As a child I would pore over our livestock books, and the photos of hardware taken from cows at slaughter horrified and captivated me.  I couldn’t imagine all those sharp, pointy things inside of living cow.

These days the old-time remedy of giving a cow a magnet only helps so much.  Modern day farms contain modern-day materials.  Or rather modern-day uses of common things in everyday life such as rigid plastic buckets that can get brittle and chip or break, aluminum pop cans that get tossed out in a hayfield and shredded with feed equipment, hog mowed pvc water pipe, and the ubiquitous plastic baling twine.  Magnets only help with metal.  I recently read a story about a sick dairy cow that went down at an educational farm.  First diagnosis by the attending vet was milk fever, treatment followed without much change, and many other things were tried and the cow finally passed.  A postmortem exam revealed a basketball-sized ball of plastic baling twine that had been impacting cow’s digestive system and eventually killing her.  It seems that many folks were “learning” how to farm, but being taught by folks who didn’t know that you need to keep that twine picked up and out of the reach of the livestock there.  Calves are notorious for putting anything in their mouths, and cows too I guess.  We use sisal on our bales, but our straw comes with plastic twine, and we try to keep on top of keeping it picked up and put away.

twine for recycling

twine for recycling

I’m not trying to scare anyone, just passing on some tips, because there are always foreign objects around on farms, so we try to just make it a habit to keep things picked up, and in the case of Jane we added the magnet in hopes that if she finds something we missed, it will keep her safe.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2013 9:44 am

    When I was first told about hardware disease, I thought they were pulling my leg. Now, it’s one of my daily worries. I use netwrapped bales and unwrapping the frozen bales and picking all traces of that malicious plastic net before being trampled by excited cows is one of my filthier jobs of winter…

  2. November 5, 2013 9:45 am

    Thanks for the reminder. That plastic baling twine gets EVERYWHERE…. we don’t go through that much hay, about fifty bales a year, but still, that’s 100 pieces of twine. I try to pick it up – it’s useful. We have more than a few cattle panels tied on to fenceposts by baling twine. But there’s always some that escapes me. The compost pile is a good example – Whenever I turn the compost, I ALWAYS find three or four pieces opt twine buried deeply.

  3. November 5, 2013 9:52 am


    And true about the farm sales ;-).

  4. November 5, 2013 10:32 am

    And, again, yet another tip that *might* have occurred to me when I finally have my greenhouse and finally again have an old cover to replace and deal with – but now for sure it will be automatic to keep and reuse: “For the roofing project we put down used greenhouse plastic sheets that we have kept for just such projects. Usually they reside on the stacked compost rows, but catching nails trumps compost covering.”

    Thank you again and again and again and …

  5. November 5, 2013 10:37 am

    I am a complete newbie when it comes to a lot of livestock *especially* cows. I know nothing really, so this is the very first time I’ve ever heard of this but now it’ll stay in the back of my mind. Thank you! We only have the easy livestock right now (chickens, rabbits) but chickens can sure uncover crazy stuff. I can only *imagine* what a cow might find. Thank you for this post, I’m going back, re-reading your older posts, and am learning a lot!

  6. November 5, 2013 10:40 am

    Random question about your twine hook: Is it hand forged? It looks it. My dad was a blacksmith growing up which is what makes me notice. Good reminder on the cleaning up. That twine gets everywhere and isn’t just the cows it bothers. Seems like all livestock has a way of getting into the stuff.

    • November 5, 2013 10:53 am

      LMG, good eye, I’ve got 3 twine hooks so far out of him, and a fancy witching “stick.” I lost a piece of twine this morning in the corral, with gloves on I just didn’t feel it slip by, and when I looked at the coil in my hand I knew I only had one piece. I really get in trouble if it makes to the manure spreader 😦

      • November 5, 2013 12:44 pm

        Hate those stray pieces of twine that escape. They always wind up where you don’t want/need them. I dearly miss having a resident blacksmith around. Most of our hooks, gate latches, hinges, door pulls, lamps, and many more things were from the blacksmith shop that was attached to the house. I have many treasured hooks and even curtain rods that my dad made. Now if I could just get the anvil and a few of the hammers I’d set up my own little smithy.

  7. November 5, 2013 11:06 am

    Years ago my husband purchased a thing that you push around on wheels. It looks like a lawn mower but has a giant magnetic strip along the bottom. Over the years that tool is one of the most handiest things we have ever bought. After a big rain I get my grandkids to push it around where the old barn that burned used to be and they always end up getting a small bucket of nails and such. I give them a penny apiece for every one that they find. Best money ever spent and it pay for itself in the amount of money I save on vet bills and flat lawn mower/truck/tractor tires. It is also the most borrowed tool that we own and there are times when I have to go to the neighbors and rescue it regularly : )

    • Beth Greenwood permalink
      November 5, 2013 3:03 pm

      Hear, hear! I’d much rather have the magnet strip pick up the nails than one of my tires (or a hay hook as happened with the last batch of hay we hauled).

  8. Kristen permalink
    November 5, 2013 1:02 pm

    From yesterday’s New York Times:
    Great farmers think alike!

    • November 5, 2013 2:03 pm

      That’s Right-to-Roam for you! I have enough of my own junk to keep track of, let alone the hunters, mushroom pickers and property enjoyers garbage too. And if that isn’t bad enough you should see all the damn ballons I find. Of course, released into the air for folks to watch as they sail off…oh how beautiful. Grumble, grumble. IT’S STILL LITTER!

      On a side note, I like those Swiss cows, thanks for the link I don’t read the NYT. Check this blog out:

      My best beef cow is a 3/4 Hereford 1/4 Guernsey and my dream dairy cow would be the opposite, unless I can squeak an old style small statured Guernsey out of Jane.

  9. November 5, 2013 1:19 pm

    This is good information for us new to farming. I didn’t grow up looking at books like that. Thanks again.

  10. November 5, 2013 2:48 pm

    I only have chickens, but those strings from feed sacks are my nemesis. They seem so innocent, but if you don’t take care to pick them up, invariably a chicken will eat one and then you’ve got a sick chicken. One time (the upcoming story is PG-13 for “grossness”) I noticed a chicken with what appeared to be a string hanging out of her behind. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it WAS a string hanging out of her behind. Repulsed but also fascinated, I grabbed the end of the string . . . . as she pulled away . . . slowly, slowly . . . well, I won’t describe the result, but afterward she was a much more spry and light-hearted chicken. I didn’t reuse the string.

  11. November 5, 2013 3:32 pm

    I bought a strong magnet with an eyebolt on the top, and hang it from a piece of baling twine. Every time I do a project involving staples or nails or screws, I try to keep track of every one that hits the ground, but then I also swing that magnet close to the ground and it generally picks up what I’ve missed, or what was already there. Still, you never get it all, darn it.

    I actually miss baling wire, as I found it much easier to keep track of – probably because I used it for so many things. I loop the ugly baling twine over a nail in the barn, and I use it for some things, but it’s nowhere near as useful to me as that wire was.

    Glass is a problem for me. I’ve never broken anything glass outdoors here, and I’ve been here 30 years. But every time I walk outside, I can find a piece of glass sticking up from the ground. The original farmhouse burned down here many years ago, and I can understand the melted glass, and also a couple of places that were clearly “dumps” for a couple hundred years worth of harrow teeth and door hinges and broken bottles and I don’t know what-all. But what I cannot understand is why I find bits of glass EVERYWHERE, all through the paddocks. Drives me crazy.

  12. November 6, 2013 5:02 am

    This is so interesting. I had no idea there was such a thing as a cow magnet! Let alone hardware disease. I am not a farmer, though my dad was. Maybe that’s why I regularly read your fabulous posts and your readers’ comments. Nostalgia reigns. Thank you.

  13. November 6, 2013 9:16 am

    One thing I hate is aluminum electric fence wire. It gets brittle and doesn’t stick to a magnet. We avoid it, but there is some of it around. The worst is glass though. We once had a perfectly healthy, and great favorite cow, that was fine at milking, standing, chewing her cud, perfectly happy and content. I walked out of the barn maybe half an hour before the boss, and when he got to the house he said, “Danilla is dead.” We were dumbfounded. Had her posted and a piece of glass she had found somewhere…old farm here…had lacerated her liver and she bled to death in minutes. We were heartsick, such a nice old girl.

    • November 6, 2013 9:22 am

      TC, I often worry about that too, I find glass every day. Broken windows, dishes you name it, every molehill brings something up. Sad 😦

    • M in NC permalink
      November 7, 2013 4:22 am

      My Dad purchased an old farm to for his business about 50 yrs ago. My mother had been raised on a farm and preferred growing her own vegetables. All the generations that lived in the house on that site must have pitched all their garbage out back and burned it on site. After 38 years of plowing/planting the same small garden area, we are still pulling broken glass, pottery, tile and nails out of the ground. She found numerous little medicine bottles(not broken) along with some other interesting items. It’s not as bad as it use to be because we make extra effort to pick it up the litter when we see it, but after a good rain, the sun will make the broken glass sparkle. We also have a lot of broken quartz rock too, so if it isn’t modern litter, it’s nature’s little suprises.

      M in NC

  14. November 6, 2013 3:36 pm

    I had no idea! What an eye opener! Pray tell, though, how does a cow magnet work? Is that something you hang on her? I just can’t picture it… (You can tell I have never been around cows….)

    • November 6, 2013 4:05 pm

      Sylvie, you administer it like a bolus, and they swallow it and it keeps metal from migrating out of the rumen or reticulum area. Not always a sure bet, but pretty painless insurance.

  15. April 6, 2014 6:46 am

    Nita, do you give a magnet to all your bovines, including the beef animals? I don’t think any of ours have magnets, and lately I’m finding all manner of things on the ground. It’s freaking me out and making me wonder if we should give each of our animals a magnet as insurance.

    • April 6, 2014 11:13 am

      Amy, we’ve been kind of lax on the beef cows, since they aren’t around the building so much, and so far knock on wood, everyone has been okay. That being said we find stuff all the time too, but so far it hasn’t scared/motivated me to give them all magnets. Jane got one because I was just sure we lost some nails in that roofing project, and I was right I have been finding one here and there, even when we were being careful. It is cheap insurance though, and some peace of mind to give them.

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