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Dealing With Storm Debris in Pastures and Hay Fields

Updated May 23, 2022
Warren Rusche

Warren Rusche

Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Feedlot Specialist

Storm debris in a pasture.
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture

South Dakota is no stranger to severe weather and damage caused by wind. Damage to structures and growing crops are the issues that typically first come to mind, but debris in pastures or in forage-producing fields also can pose a significant risk.

Risks to Grazing Livestock

Ingestion of foreign material poses the greatest risk for health problems in grazing livestock from storm events. Livestock often eat items other than plant material, which increases this risk of physical injury (hardware disease) or digestive upset. Metal objects are well-recognized risks, but even items, such as fiberglass insulation can lead to blockage, bloat or irritation to the digestive tract if ingested. Managers should observe cattle closely and be ready to contact their veterinarian for prompt intervention and treatment, if necessary.

Risks From Debris in Forage Fields

In some respects, debris in forage fields poses a greater challenge. First, even small pieces that a grazing animal might not have ingested can result in the same health concerns listed earlier if they wind up in baled or chopped forage. Secondly, there will likely be an extended period between the storm event and time of feeding. Time delay increases the chance that managers overlook the risk from ingestion of foreign material, simply because dealing with other production issues took precedence. One also cannot overlook that storm debris increases the risk of tire or mechanical damage to harvesting equipment.

"Ingestion of foreign material poses the greatest risk for health problems in grazing livestock... Managers should observe cattle closely and be ready to contact their veterinarian for prompt intervention and treatment, if necessary."

— Warren Rusche, Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Feedlot Specialist

Mitigation Steps

The most obvious mitigation approach is to pick up as much of the debris as possible. This can be easier said than done, especially if there are multiple damage areas on a farm or ranch. In those instances, removing grazing livestock (if possible) from a pasture containing debris will buy time to address emergency concerns.

Manually removing storm debris is unfortunately time and labor intensive. While mechanical equipment can help speed up removing large, heavy material, smaller pieces will likely involve hand labor. Drones might be a useful tool to obtain a visual assessment of an area and reduce the amount of time spent looking for debris.

Rumen magnets are one option to reduce health risks from ingested metal. If administering magnets to a large group of livestock is impractical, targeting higher value individuals, such as herd sires or particularly valuable seedstock animals may be an effective compromise to product against hardware disease, either while grazing or consuming stored feed.

Segregating forage from affected fields would help more-clearly identify how to best use the feedstuff, especially if the feed might contain large amounts of debris that could not be separated out pre-harvest. Animals fed a small amount of forage for an abbreviated period, such as finishing cattle, might be a better option than feeding this feed to an animal eating larger amounts of forage with a longer expected productive lifespan (i.e., beef cows).