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    Spring Green Pastures: Managing Resident Consumption

    A lamb eats fresh spring grass in the sun.

    Spring can be a wonderful time of year for those of you who live in regions with four seasons. Gone are the days of shoveling heaps of snow, dealing with frozen pipes, and early sunsets. Spring brings pleasant weather, longer days, and frolicking residents. This is all lovely. However, these lush spring pastures may cause health issues in certain ruminant, camelid, and equine residents. This mini introductory resource will cover some basic information on spring pasture-related health issues and briefly discuss precautions caregivers can take to ensure residents stay happy and healthy this spring! Let’s get started.

    Lush Pastures

    What exactly do we mean by lush pastures? Lush pastures are those where new grasses and legumes (clover and alfalfa are good examples) are rapidly and healthily growing and covering the landscape. Grasses mainly consist of water, sugars, protein, vitamins and minerals, and fiber. The ratio of these properties depends on a number of factors, such as type of grass, maturity, time of day, seasons, stress, temperatures, moisture, maturity, and management practices. Spring grasses tend to contain quite a lot of water. They also contain a lot of “nonstructural carbohydrates,” which include sugars, fructans (a complex sugar), and starches. This makes the grasses more tender (and tempting) than mature grasses, as there is less indigestible fiber. These tender grasses make for delicious snacking, and ruminant, camelid, and equine residents often eagerly nibble on large amounts when given a chance. While we want residents to enjoy the lush spring pastures, too much too fast can have negative health consequences for them. Additionally, legumes have a different ratios of water, sugars, proteins and vitamins, and minerals, so it is important to learn the difference. Lush spring legumes can also have a detrimental effect on residents. These consequences can range from mild, temporary health issues to severe, life-threatening health conditions. Let’s take a peek at some health impacts to consider.

    Keep Residents With Certain Health Conditions Off Lush Pastures
    While you should always develop a diet plan with your veterinarian and/or equine nutritionist, generally speaking, it is best to keep equine residents who suffer from Equine Metabolic Syndrome, Insulin Resistance, and Cushing’s Disease off lush pastures unless told otherwise by your veterinarian.

    Frothy Bloat

    Frothy bloat caused by pasture is most likely to occur in the spring and fall. Frothy bloat primarily affects ruminants, whereas camelids seem to be resistant to frothy bloat. When pasture is the cause, multiple residents are typically affected. However, some individuals may be more prone to bloat than others, especially newer residents who may not be accustomed to lush pastures (which is why they should be slowly introduced to pastures). Lush spring legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, often cause frothy bloat in ruminants, so equal care should be taken in pastures with more legumes than grasses. If a resident shows signs of bloat, it is essential to immediately prevent them from further grazing until the underlying cause is confirmed. If the affected individual is not a new resident (and therefore, the bloat cannot be explained by them not yet being accustomed to available vegetation), it’s a good idea to remove all members of the group from pasture areas, even if not everyone is showing concerning signs. Learn more about frothy bloat and how to prevent it and treat affected ruminant residents.

    Warm Days And Cool Nights
    Generally speaking, it is best to let residents out to graze lush spring pastures in the early hours of the morning and bring them in from the lush pastures by mid-morning. This is because the sugars are the lowest at this time. The more sun they receive, the higher the sugar content and the more risk the grasses pose to residents. However, if your region experiences warm, sunny spring days but chilly nights (under 40 degrees Fahrenheit), the sugar may still be in the grass the next morning. In this case, residents who have Cushing’s disease or insulin resistance should be kept from indulging. 

    (Grass) Colic

    Technically, colic is the symptom of abdominal pain, not an illness within itself. This means anyone can have colic, and the causes of it are many. However, you have most likely heard colic in reference to equine residents, as it can be a particular issue for them and indicate a life-threatening illness. There are different causes of colic, one of them being the ingestion of too much lush spring grass. Basically, a lot of delicious spring grass is ingested, high in sugars, with little indigestible fiber. When this sugar reaches the hindgut, it causes a disruption to the microbiome and ferments in excess. This leads to excess gas that builds up faster than the body can release it. Sometimes the gas gets trapped in the digestive tract causing mild to severe pain. This may not seem like an emergency, but it can quickly become serious as the intestines can twist and cut off the blood supply. If you suspect colic, call the veterinarian asap. For more in-depth information on colic, check out the full resource here. To prevent spring pastures from becoming an issue, you can feed residents dry forage before letting them out on the pasture so they are already filling their bellies beforehand. You can also let them out for a short amount of time, increasing that time each day. 

    Spring Diarrhea

    Don’t be surprised if ruminant, camelid, and equine residents have temporarily loose stools after indulging in spring grasses. Their stools may also take on a green tinge. A little mild loose stool is unlikely to be a problem for the average healthy adult. However, young residents and ill residents may be more susceptible to dehydration, and a close eye should be kept on them. To prevent serious gastric upset, gradually introduce residents, letting them out in the early morning hours. Do this for just a short time on the first day, then gradually increase their time spent grazing. Providing residents with dry forage to fill their bellies on can help them from gobbling up too much sugary grass. 

    A Note On Grazing Muzzles
    Grazing muzzles are muzzles designed to allow equines to graze without overindulging. There are muzzles for sheep and goats, but these designs don’t allow for grazing, just water intake, or don’t prevent them from grazing grass but do prevent them from eating vines. While we do not recommend those for sheep and goats, they may be used in equines. However, using them properly and safely and understanding their limitations is important. Grazing muzzles limit self and group grooming and inhibit herd mates from seeing their full facial expressions, an important part of horse communication. Some individuals may be able to partially remove their grazing muzzle as well.

    On the other side of things, grazing muzzles can allow vulnerable residents to graze with their herd when they may not be able to otherwise. One study did not find any physiological stress markers in miniature horses wearing a grazing muzzle. However, this was a small study, and much more information is needed to better understand the impacts grazing muzzles may have on residents’ emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

    Grass Founder (Laminitis)

    Laminitis is all too common among our equine friends, and it can be difficult to watch as they deal with this painful disease. While laminitis is more commonly seen in equines, ruminants can also be affected. Laminitis affects the sensitive and insensitive tissues in the foot that support the pedal bone. When these tissues lose blood flow,  become inflamed, or break down, the coffin bone can detach from the wall and sink; this can be debilitating and sometimes fatal. While laminitis has many possible causes, diet can play a large part in developing and managing the disease. Generally speaking, residents that have had laminitis in the past should be kept from dining on lush spring pastures. At the very least, they should be fed dry forage before being let out on the pasture. For more information on laminitis, check out a resource on advanced equine nutrition.

    Beware Grass Clippings!
    Tossing freshly mown grass from your lawn to residents may be tempting. However, the grass will quickly start the chemical process of breaking down and releasing gasses which can cause a nasty case of gassy colic (excessive fermentation colic) among equine residents or frothy bloat in ruminant residents. Instead, consider composting or leaving it to dry out.

    Grass Tetany (Grass Staggers)

    Okay, this one may seem strange. Imagine your ruminant residents standing and munching on lush spring grasses….yet suffering from a dietary deficiency. Strange right? Well-lush spring grasses, comprised of lots of water and nonstructural carbohydrates, often lack a number of vital nutrients. Magnesium is an essential nutrient for ruminants, and lush spring grasses can be lacking in the amount that residents need, especially cow residents. Legumes like alfalfa and clover can provide more magnesium than hay grasses, so if your pasture is rich in legumes, more magnesium will generally be available for residents. Grass Tetany generally affects cows in the early stages of lactation, but non-lactating cows can also be affected. When this occurs, it is usually seen in older cows and calves. When someone has a magnesium deficiency, they can develop something called Grass Tetany or “Grass Staggers.”  A resident suffering from tetany will have stiffness in their muscles and walk stiffly. Their face may twitch, and they may hold their tail up. If left untreated, they will generally suffer from mental issues and become reactive, excitable, and wary. This condition can sadly end in death. Individuals close to death may be observed downed and kicking their legs stiffly. Call your veterinarian immediately if you suspect a resident is suffering from tetany!

    Weight Gain

    While you want residents to enjoy grazing in the pastures, it is important to consider each individual’s dietary and health needs. Ponies, miniature horses, and donkeys are prone to easy weight gain, as are certain breeds of ruminants. Donkeys in particular, evolved to “do more with less,” meaning they can eat and get nutrition from poorer quality forage than other species. This results in easy weight gain. If you have a resident who is considered an “easy keeper,” keep this in mind when developing a diet plan. This includes access to lush spring grasses. Speak with your vet about the best diet plan for them.

    Slender Does Not Equal Healthy
    Within Western human society, there is a common misconception that a slimmer person is automatically healthier than someone who weighs significantly more. However, being thinner does not equal being healthy in and of itself, and weighing more does not automatically mean an individual suffers from certain health issues. The same can be said of ruminants, equines, and camelids. While excessive amounts of weight may increase the risk of certain health issues, animals with average body condition scores can also be at risk of foundering when consuming large amounts of spring pastures. It is vital to take each individual and thoroughly assess their health without simply assuming they aren’t at risk because they have an average body condition score. Additionally, some breeds of equines and ruminants are stockier than others. It is important to be familiar with their physical breed characteristics so you can accurately develop a diet plan. Basically, don’t make assumptions and discuss individual diet plans with an experienced veterinarian.

    Overview Of Preventative Measures

    While this resource only scratches the surface when it comes to nutritional health in ruminants, camelids, and equine residents, there are some steps you can take to prevent health issues from arising. Check out this list of preventative measures:

    • Feed residents dry hay before giving access to lush pastures.
    • Provide pasture access for a short amount of time, gradually giving them more pasture time.
    • Keep residents off pasture during mid-day/early evening. Give them access during the early morning hours or at dusk.
    • Consider the needs and health risks of each individual before providing pasture access.
    • Talk to a veterinarian about using grazing muzzles properly for vulnerable equine residents.

    We hope that this resource has been informative and helpful in providing the best care for your ruminant, equine, and camelid residents. Spring is such a lovely time of the year, and we hope caretakers and residents alike enjoy the pleasant weather and greenery. Following the above suggestions (always discuss dietary changes with your veterinarian) should help ensure happy and healthy residents.

    Parasite Considerations
    While not an issue caused by lush pastures, it’s important to keep in mind that when residents are grazing, they are more likely to come into contact with certain internal parasites. Of particular note is the concern of barber pole worm infestations which can cause severe, and even fatal, disease in camelids and small ruminants. Careful pasture management can help mitigate your residents’ risk of coming into contact with these parasites by preventing them from grazing close to the ground where most larvae are found, but it’s important to remember that any patch of grass could harbor these parasites. Therefore, if you must restrict your residents’ access to pasture during certain times in order to prevent the health challenges that can be caused by consuming lush grasses and legumes, consider if the space your residents are in will give them access to small patches of grass that they may quickly graze down to the ground. Small patches of grass may be of no interest to them when they have access to larger pasture spaces, but those same small patches of grass may be very appealing and pose significant risk of parasite exposure when it’s all the grass they have access to.


    Alpaca Husbandry And General Management | Crookwell Veterinary Hospital (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Spring Grass And Laminitis In Horses | University Of Illinois College Of Veterinary Medicine (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Grass Founder | American Association Of Equine Practitioners (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Sugars and Fructans in Horse Forages | Equinews (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Grass Tetany: A Disease Of Many Challenges | PennState Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Spring Grazing Alert: Grass Tetany Has Already Been Reported In Montana This Spring | Montana State University (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Selected Seasonal Livestock Health Concerns | Washington State University (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Common Diseases Of Grazing Beef Cattle | PennState Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Effects Of Grazing Muzzles On Behavior And Physiological Stress Of Individually Housed Grazing Miniature Horses |  Applied Animal Behavior Science (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?
    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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