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Possum poop may be problematic to horses

When evaluating the quality of horse hay, it is important to consider the moisture, protein, digestible energy and nutrient content. You may be looking to hold the nonstructural carbohydrate level below 10% for horses with metabolic syndrome, or maybe you need to limit the dustiness for horses with respiratory issues.

But if you’ve seen evidence that opossums may have gotten into your horse’s hay supply, you may have even more urgent worries.

Opossums (or just “possums” for us Midwest country folks) are hosts for equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. EPM is considered rare but serious. Infected horses may not survive, even with treatment.

DrJimWhiteThe neurologic disease can spread to horses consuming forage, feed or water contaminated with possum feces containing the EPM-causing organism, Sarcocystis neurona. Possums are not picky and will eat about anything they can find. They also defecate indiscriminately, unlike raccoons or hogs that have a distinct latrine area.

Once a horse ingests Sarcocystis neurona, the organism can enter gastrointestinal tract, then the bloodstream and then the central nervous system. Horses are “dead end” hosts, so once infected, they cannot transmit it to other animals.

Not every horse that eats contaminated feed develops EPM, and not every possum carries the parasite that causes EPM. Wildlife biologists report that about a third of Missouri possums are infected. Reports indicate that 50% to 60% of horses have been exposed to Sarcocystis neurona, but only about 1 out of 600 develop the disease.

Dr. Tony Martin, MFA’s manager of animal health, says the sooner EPM is diagnosed and appropriately treated, the better the chance of recovery without permanent damage. That means examining affected horses in early symptomatic stages and including EPM in the initial differential diagnosis list if any of the clinical signs give even a hint of the disease. Tests of both blood and spinal fluid are the gold standard for identifying EPM.

To help remember symptoms of EPM, just think “STALL.”
• Stumbling or tripping
• Tilted head with poor balance
• Asymmetric muscle weakness
• Lameness or gait abnormality
• Leaning against walls

Affected horses may also have difficulty swallowing, suffer from seizures, sweat abnormally, and exhibit drooping eyes, ears or lips.
Marquis, an antiprotozoal medication with the active ingredient ponazuril, is the primary treatment of choice for EPM, along with anti-inflammatory medications to lessen neural swelling and damage. Many severely affected horses can be treated and survive, but quality of life and function tend to lead to euthanasia in extreme cases.

There is also at least a 10% to 20% chance of relapse in horses that are successfully treated.

Currently, no vaccination is available for EPM, so prevention relies on maximizing your horse’s health and reducing the chances that possum feces is present in feed, hay or water. Start by taking measures to deter possums from entering barns, hay sheds and outbuildings. Possums prefer to be left alone. They want to eat, sleep, have more possums, stay unnoticed by larger animals and not get run over by cars.

Monitor barns, feed storage areas and stall bedding for signs of pest presence, such as gnawed bags and animal nests. Woodpiles and abandoned equipment are also favorite denning sites for a number of pests, not just possums but also skunks, armadillos and other disease-spreading wildlife that could carry the EPM organism.

Feed pets away from the barn—or at least away from where you are storing feed and hay. Bird feeders and fallen fruit are also attractive to wildlife such as possums.

Keep building perimeters free from grass and weeds that could provide cover for rodents. Cut back any overhanging trees or vines. Reducing places they can hide and keeping feed in rodent-proof containers will also preclude possums.

Hopefully, the only part of this article you’ll ever need are the tips on “prevention,” but if you have questions, reach out to the experts at your local MFA or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

CLICK HERE to read more from this November Today's Farmer Magazine.

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Eat, drink and be healthy

Study shows preconditioning calves improves feedlot behavior

Calves going from the farm to the feedlot undergo numerous stressors within a short time: weaning, transportation, adapting to new environments and feed sources. These pressures increase the risk of bovine respiratory disease, which is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in feedlot cattle and can also lead to a decreased feed intake for up to two weeks after arrival. In fact, freshly weaned calves have double the treatment costs at the feedyard than those that have been preconditioned in a program such as MFA’s Health Track.

Controlled studies and Health Track data show that preconditioning weaned calves for six to eight weeks is beneficial to stocker and feedlot operations. This preconditioning period makes the transition process as easy as possible for the animal through gradual weaning, essential vaccinations, proper nutrition and environmental management.

Giving calves some extra time to adjust to weaning before marketing allows their immune system to mature and vaccines to begin providing protection. Preconditioned calves can also learn to eat out of a bunk and drink from waterers before arrival at the feedlot. In many ways, preconditioning minimizes the cluster of stressful interventions that non-preconditioned calves encounter, resulting in less morbidity and mortality, improved post-weaning performance and higher carcass quality.

Commingling calves from various sources is one of the biggest points of stress at the feedlot and can negatively impact performance upon arrival. Recently, Canadian researchers studied the effect of calf source—preconditioned, auction-derived, non-preconditioned directly from the ranch—and the impact of commingling on feeding behavior and activity during the first seven days in the feedlot.

The first objective of this research was to observe the time preconditioned beef calves spent eating and ruminating compared to ranch-sourced and auction calves. The second objective was to assess the impacts of commingling preconditioned calves with various proportions of auction calves (25%, 50% and 75%), looking at feeding behavior and activity among these groups in that same time frame.

The researchers found that, during the first seven days in the yard, preconditioned calves spent 11% more time eating (163.3 minutes per day) than ranch-direct calves and 15% more (213.7 minutes per day) than auction-acquired calves. In comparing the ratios of commingled calves, pens with a higher proportion of preconditioned calves also spent more time eating compared to pens with lower proportions of preconditioned calves. There was no difference in time spent ruminating between and within all pens, despite significant differences in time spent eating.

Bottom line, these results indicate that preconditioning calves at the farm can improve feeding behavior in the first week at the feedlot in comparison to ranch-direct and auction calves. Although the researchers pointed out that time spent eating is not a direct measure of feed intake, other studies have shown that preconditioned calves consume more feed in comparison to non-preconditioned, direct-from-the-ranch calves.

Taking source into consideration when studying the feeding behavior and activity of feedlot calves provides insight into how preconditioning could improve their health and performance at the feedlot. This positive outcome should encourage more investment in preconditioning practices at the farm and ranch level.
Health Track is one such option available to MFA customers throughout our trade territory. Participants give enrolled calves two rounds of vaccinations, provide MFA-recommended feed and follow a 45-day weaning period. In addition to helping ensure animal health before and after weaning, Health Track can help producers earn a premium price at the sale barn. It’s a proven system to help prepare calves for the next step in the marketing journey and add real value to your operation.

Visit with your MFA livestock experts for more information on preconditioning or visit online at

READ MORE from the October Today's Farmer Magazine

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Don’t let forage shortages hinder horse health

Management measures, alternative feedstuffs can help stretch supplies

Long-stem forage is necessary for normal digestive function and normal behavior in horses. According to equine nutrient requirements published by the National Research Council, horses should have a minimum of 1% of their body weight each day in forage.

But what happens when the forage inventory needed for the horse operation is insufficient? 

Equine owners faced with forage shortages have several options to stretch supplies, such as decreasing nutritional requirements, reducing waste, alleviating stresses and supplementing with alternative feedstuffs.

Let’s start with what may be considered a last resort: culling animals. While this will directly reduce forage requirements, it may not be something horse owners want to consider. Still, critically looking at the herd and knowing the total annual cost of keeping each horse is smart management that can help in decisions about whether to reduce herd numbers.

One way to preserve your hay inventory is to reduce waste. Make sure horses consume as much of the bale as possible by using an effective feeder rather than feeding it on the ground. When baling, using net wrap rather than sisal twine has been shown to help reduce storage and handling losses by as much as 65%, according to a study by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. Keep hay indoors or cover it completely with a tarp. Storage losses of uncovered hay can be upwards of 30%. Also, store hay off the ground, on a pallet or another lifted dry surface.

Protecting horses from environ-mental stress can also help them more efficiently process the forage they consume and reduce their energy requirements. During the summer, take heat abatement measures such as providing shade, using fans for better airflow and allowing free access to clean water. Adjust riding and workout schedules to cooler parts of the day and include frequent breaks. In the winter, be sure horses have adequate bedding, provide wind breaks and use blankets for outdoor horses during inclement weather. Alleviate health stresses on the horse by treating for parasites and using effective fly control methods.

Test hay to understand its quality and feed according to specifications, ensuring that it is neither overfed nor underfed. High-quality hay will be richer in nutrients and more calorie-dense, which means less is needed—important during a shortage.

Alternative feedstuffs can be useful during forage shortages. Hay cubes, hay pellets and chopped alfalfa can be used as total replacements for hay. A standard MFA product is the 14% Horse Cube. Complete feeds that contain a mixture of grains and roughage can also replace hay. These are nutritionally balanced and adequate in fiber, but horses will eat the feed much faster than forage. It may be advisable to feed frequent small meals rather than fill a self feeder.

Fiber sources other than forages commonly used here in the central U.S. can include soybean hulls, rice bran, beet pulp, oat hulls, peanut hulls, distillers’ and brewers’ grains, wheat bran or mill feed. These feedstuffs cannot fully replace hay but are used as partial replacements.

Cottonseed hulls, cottonseeds, and gin trash—a byproduct of the ginning process composed of lint, burs, stems, cottonseed and seed fragments—are commonly fed to cattle, but they are usually not feasible to use in horse rations. Other fiber sources that are not typically recommended in equine rations include oat hulls, peanut hulls, rice hulls and sunflower hulls, which have low digestibility in horses. Poultry litter is often fed to cattle, but it is not a viable alternative fiber source for horses.

Along with adequate forage, horses should have access to plenty of clean water. Normal pasture plants are high in moisture, but during hot, dry conditions, their water content is greatly decreased. Similarly, hay has very little moisture, so horses usually drink more water when they are receiving dry forage than when they are consuming succulent pasture.

Transition feed changes slowly. Feeding large amounts of high-energy feed or abruptly changing the source or concentration of energy from one meal to the next predisposes horses to colic.

If you find forage inventories running low this summer and fall, visit with the animal nutrition experts at MFA for advice on alternative solutions.

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Weaning winning replacement heifers

DrJimWhiteRaising replacement heifers takes a lot of time, labor and re­sources. However, the investment is worth it. According to the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association, the first six months of a dairy calf’s life account for 50% of lifetime stature growth and 25% of lifetime weight gain. The transition to weaning is particularly critical as a slump during this time will impact the calf’s longterm health and productivity.

Here are some practices that will help avoid the post-weaning slump, adapted from an article in Bovine Veterinarian:

Don’t change everything at once

Making changes incrementally will reduce the stress of weaning. For instance, instead of removing liquid rations all at once, drop them back to once per day for a few days or re­duce the auto feeder volumes before removing them entirely. Similarly, don’t change housing and feed at the same time. Many producers success­fully keep calves in their pre-wean­ing housing for a week after wean­ing, while others keep calves on their pre-weaning grain mixture when they enter new housing. The order of changes can be adjusted to suit operational needs. The goal is to allow calves to adjust to one change before making another.

Transition diets gradually

Going abruptly from a milk-based diet to a grain and forage ration disrupts the microbes living in the calf’s digestive tract. There are many ways to ease into the transition. For instance, you can feed MFA Stand­out Calf Starter ad lib (available at all times) for the first 12 weeks of life or until the calves are eating 10 pounds of daily intake, and then transition to MFA Trendsetter as the grower feed with free-choice hay for another 12 weeks.

Rumen volumes increase dramat­ically in the first 24 weeks of life. Feeding starter early—offering it by day 3 after birth—will trigger chem­ical reactions that drive papillae development on the rumen wall and improve overall rumen development. However, switching immediately to a mostly forage diet at weaning can disrupt this development. If you have to feed forage at weaning, limit it to no more than 15% of the diet. The calf’s rumen will fully devel­op by 6 months of age, and that is when heifers are ready to transition to an all-they-can-eat fermented forage buffet.

House calves in small groups

The first post-weaning grouping of calves should be six head or less. This lets heifers learn how to interact in a group, access the feed bunk, and find the water source without stressful competition. Similarly, calves raised in auto feeder pens should be kept together for their first post-weaning grouping.

Make it easy for the calves

Give the 2- to 4-month-old dairy heifers 12 to 18 inches of feed bunk space per head, making sure that the height allows all animals to reach the trough. Ensure ample air movement without creating a draft. Keep bedding dry and the walking surface clear of mud, snow and ice. Comfortable conditions keep heifers from diverting extra energy to staying warm or getting feed, thus reducing the risk of slump.

Feed for their needs

When feeding young heifers, con­sider what they need rather than what feed is the most convenient. During this stage, it is important to pay attention to the total protein content of their ration. Consider that lower-protein grain mixes—12% to 14% crude protein when paired with forages testing less than 18% to 20% crude protein—don’t allow adequate protein intake for skeletal growth. We recommend MFA Trendsetter Developer R-54, which improves protein utilization to balance a feed­ing program for better performance, faster growth and healthier calves. This ration also covers the animal’s mineral requirements and aids in coccidiosis control with the addition of Rumensin.

Control coccidiosis

Using a post-weaning feed medicated with a coccidiocide, such as the ionophores Rumensin or Bovatec, is important to overall calf growth and health. This is especially important if Deccox, a common coccidiostat used in feed, was in the pre-weaning starter ration. If this medication is removed from the diet after weaning, you can have a break in coccidiosis protection, allowing the coccidia protozoa to complete their life cycle. The parasite can cause diarrhea in calves and young growing stock, often decreasing production. An ion­ophore also improves feed efficiency and helps calves put on weight, lowering cost of gain.

For more information on avoiding the post-weaning slump with replacement heifers, including feed recommendations for your specific operation, visit with the livestock experts at your MFA location.

READ MORE from the June/July 2023 Today’s Farmer’s Magazine, the MFA Incorporated member magazine.

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Vampires aren’t the only pests repelled by garlic

Fly control in cattle operations is always a hot topic as the weather warms up. Flies can cause significant losses in beef and dairy animals by reducing weight gain and milk production.

Pyrethroid insecticides are widely used to combat the problem. A pyrethroid is an organic compound similar to natural pyrethrins produced by flowers such as chrysanthemums. These insecticides are effective on flies and generally harmless to humans, but they are toxic to fish and desirable insects such as bees, dragonflies and mayflies.

These safety concerns and increasing resistance indicate the need for alternative control tactics. There are a variety of fly-control technologies on the market today, including botanical extracts and oils with bioactive compounds that can exert different modes of action.

One of the most promising is the Allium sativum species—also known as garlic. Garlic oil and extracts are identified by EPA as “minimum risk pesticide products” under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, a designation given when the risk to the public and the environment is low enough to not require all the data and review necessary for registration.

Allicin is an active ingredient in garlic that has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and antiprotozoal activity. It also acts as a natural insect repellent. After consuming garlic, animals will secrete the allicin, which cannot be metabolized. The familiar, pungent garlic odor is emitted through the animals’ skin and breath and makes them less appealing to flies.

The head, neck, back line and tail head are where the greatest repellent effect is seen. The effect will be influenced by level of intake as well as weather and environmental conditions.

Anecdotal evidence from producers using garlic-enhanced salt or mineral seems to be positive. And while there is limited formal research on garlic, the few existing studies have consistently shown fewer flies when cattle were fed supplements containing garlic. Most reports indicate results in the 40% to 60% reduction.

Garlic has also shown some effect on repelling ticks. A 2017 article in the International Journal of Acarology (the study of mites and ticks), reported that a water-based solution with garlic concentration of 25% can be safely applied on animals to remove ticks and 10% to prevent ticks from attacking animals for a period up to a week.

While any reduction is good, keep in mind that the EPA says a compound needs to control more than 90% of targeted pests to be considered a conventional insecticide.

In response to requests for MFA minerals with garlic, we have added the ingredient to several versions of our popular MFA Ricochet FesQ Max mineral with Shield Technology. Some of these garlic products are floor-stocked at our feed mills while others require a minimum 2-ton order. Check with your local MFA manager or livestock representative for product availability.

Plant-derived bioactive compounds such as allicin typically exhibit short residual activity, which can be seen as an advantage or disadvantage, depending on who is buying the drinks. It’s important to remember that garlic only works as a repellent and does not kill insects. Producers wanting to reduce the impact that flies have on their cattle herds need to tackle the problem with a multi-faceted approach, both internally and externally.

Even when using products containing garlic, producers should also consider feeding an insect growth regulator in mineral to interrupt the flies’ life cycle and reduce future population numbers. External fly-control measures can include insecticide sprays, dusts, backrubbers or oilers. Using multiple modes of action helps prevent or delay development of resistance by pest populations.

Bottom line, bioactive botanical compounds such as the allicin in garlic are not a cure-all for controlling horn flies, stable flies or ticks, but they may offer environmentally friendly alternatives to synthetic pesticides and improve upon safety and resistance buildup. These advantages, and the variety of available compounds, are potentially valuable tools for an integrated pest management program. We’ll likely see more development and research in this area.

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