It's been a tough year so far for Central Kentucky's cattle producers as they struggle to contain a potentially fatal condition called "frothy bloat" that has taken a toll on herds.
The damage has become so severe that state officials have petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to include the condition in a program that allows farmers to request federal reimbursement for losses.
"You've got them all the way from the small guy to the folks who have bigger herds who have lost up to 10 to 20 head," said Dave Maples, executive vice president of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association.
Jeff Lehmkuhler, an extension beef cattle specialist at the University of Kentucky, said, "We're seeing bulls, cows, stocker cattle. It's all categories of beef cattle being impacted."
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In general, the cattle affected by frothy bloat, technically called primary ruminal tympany, have eaten too much clover. Though clover improves pasture quality, ingesting too much of it can be damaging because it can cause fermentation gases to be trapped inside the cattle's rumen, or stomach, Lehmkuhler explained. The clover produces a foam inside the cattle's gastrointestinal tract that prevents them from being able to burp. When the gas can't escape, the rumen expands, much like a balloon, and presses on the diaphragm. That can lead to suffocation.
The presence of clover is linked to the state's droughts in 2007 and 2008, said officials with the state Department of Agriculture. The droughts weakened the grass in pastures, allowing clover to gain more of a foothold. When heavy rains came in 2009 and primarily in May of this year, the clover began to grow higher and faster than the grass.
Lehmkuhler has been studying the spread of the condition around Kentucky, and he used a survey of the university's county extension agents to determine that frothy bloat appears to be most active in the central and north-central parts of the state.
The survey suggested that just 1 percent of the cattle represented had died, but Lehmkuhler extrapolated from the results and national data to estimate that means losses of almost $5 million.
Among those with losses are Tim and Amy White of White Farm in Lexington. Frothy bloat has killed more than 30 head of beef cattle from a group of about 600 on the couple's farm. They estimate the financial loss at more than $23,000.
"It started as one or two calves here and there," Tim White recalled.
After the initial deaths, in April, the numbers picked up, but they have slowly been declining, he said.
"I'm not losing like I was, but we're finding about one a week now still," he said recently. "I hope I won't lose any more. I've lost enough."
Lehmkuhler said he has been recommending that cattle producers continue to use clover in their pastures but to supplement their livestock's diet with products that guard against bloat. Unfortunately for producers, that's an added cost during a down economy.
Greg Robey, president-elect of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association, works for Burkmann Feeds in Danville and has seen the bloat-prevention products flying off shelves.
"We've sold more in two days than we did for the whole season last spring," Robey said.
The options for bloat prevention include products like a 33-pound licking block that contains additives and costs about $20, and a 20-pound bag of feed supplements that costs up to $90, Robey said.
"It's been fairly devastating to the larger producers," he said. "They're scared not to do anything, so they're continuing to feed these products now, even though historically we'd be past the threat of frothy bloat."
The Whites have been using the bloat guards for their cattle on their farm on Military Road in rural Fayette County. Between the supplies and labor, the quest to prevent more cases of frothy bloat have cost them $6,000. That's on top of the $23,000 that Tim White estimates he has lost in cattle.
"I'm getting close to $30,000 just from bloat, and that's on top of my normal expenses," he said.
White said he hopes the federal government will accept the state's proposal to add frothy bloat to a program that allows farmers to recoup their losses.
Sandy Gardner in the governor's Office of Agricultural Policy said the state has sent a letter to the federal Department of Agriculture but has not heard back.
The Cattlemen's Association is hoping for a speedy response, Maples said.
"There are already programs in place to help," he said, "but we just need to get it in place where this emergency fits into the program."