As Texas Cooperative Extension program leader for veterinary medicine, Buddy Faries has seen — and discussed — a lot of thin cattle.

“In 1994 and 1995, I was talking on inadequate nutrition, then it went to malnutrition, now we have starving cows. Cows need to stay in body condition score 5 and heifers need to stay in BCS 6 — when they have three ribs showing, they are starving.”

The effects of drought on cattle are compounding — one health problem opens the door for another. After the obvious malnutrition or starvation, one of the first drought-related health problems in cattle is range ketosis, or low blood sugar and high ketones.

“I've been feeding this cow hay, now I need to feed her grain, but once her blood sugar gets low, she loses her appetite for grain,” Faries says. “The only way to get her blood sugar back up is for a vet to give her glucose, and it's not a one-shot deal.”

Lumpy jaw and woody tongue, or an irritated mouth and tongue, are a concern in thin cattle.

“Woody tongue is caused by soil bacteria. When the tongue gets irritated, bacteria get in there and causes abscesses and pus. It can get into the soft tissue of the mouth, too,” he says. “Thin cattle also need to be watched as far as grain aflatoxin poisoning from stressed corn or sorghum.”

Low-quality or high salinity water due to drought can lead to dehydration in cattle. Dehydrated cattle will have sunken eyes, and when their skin is pinched, it will stay “tented.”

“Cows need 20 to 30 gallons of water a day,” Faries says. “A dehydrated cow will be constipated, so you've got to look at that manure and really assess the situation.”

Malnutrition and dehydration lead to stressed cattle, and stress can cause a number of serious issues, including low fertility and abortion.

“Any time cows are stressed, their fertility is decreased. Stress is the most common cause of aborted calves in Texas,” Faries says.

Stress can cause cattle to become immunosuppressed, leading to more eye, kidney, bladder and liver infections.

“I am seeing more sick cattle around the state, all related to the drought,” Faries says. “Stress causes the immune system to be weaker, and you see what we call “germ recrudescence.' That means that the germs that are always present in your cows' bodies are not begin kept in check by the immune system any more, and they are starting to multiply.”

All the previously mentioned factors could contribute to downer cattle but other causes of downers are laminitis, polio, plant nitrate or cyanide poisoning, poisonous plants, the blackleg group of disease or anthrax.

“You might see dead cattle after a rain, and that could be due to fog fever, or pulmonary emphysema and edema,” Faries says. “Cyanide poisoning, the blackleg group and anthrax also can lead to dead cattle after rains.”

Finally, Faries cautions producers about bringing diseases into their operations when purchasing replacement cattle.

“Cows and bulls can carry Johne's disease, cows can carry neosporosis, and bulls can carry vibriosis and trich,” he says. “If you buy a used bull, they might as well just write on his sale papers that he has those last two.”