Beware of Ball Waterers

We've had a mystery here at Mountain Heritage Farm this third week of September 2023.  Napoleon, our 7-month-old up-and-coming Dexter herd sire began exhibiting "dumpy and depressed" behavior Tuesday evening.  I got really concerned when I realized one of the heifers in the pasture with him was in standing heat and all he wanted to do was sleep.  That is a bad, BAD sign!

I brought him to the quarantine pen and observed him for a few hours.  We even brought the heifer in heat into the quarantine pen with him.  He was completely uninterested.  If you know young bulls, you know, this is not normal!  Even though he is not viable yet, he should have been all over her!

I started going through the things I know to check:

  • No temperature
  • No bloat
  • No diarrhea
  • Testicles normal (I thought he might have a testicular torsion)
  • Sheath normal
  • Eyes dull but no corneal abrasions

But then I pulled down on his lower lid and it came away from his eyeball.  That can be an early symptom of dehydration in cattle (not always, but sometimes).  Hmmmm....

How can a bull calf with no diarrhea and access to water have mild dehydration symptoms?!

I got a yard chair and just sat with him.  From 4-8pm he slept. There was no chewing of cud and no bowel movements.  If you know cattle, you know they're pooping machines.  The biggest graze time for my herd is those late evening hours when it's cooler.  No grazing, lack of bowel movements, and lack of cud made no sense.

Because I couldn't think of anything else to do, I gave him a shot of B-complex (vitamins) and tubed about a quart of warm molasses water into his tummy.  About 15 minutes later, he appeared to be chewing cud so I went inside and got ready for bed. I checked on him several times during the night.  He was always sitting upright, but I never saw cud chewing again.  Odd.

Wednesday morning, I called the vet's office as soon as they opened.  I told them I wasn't exactly in an emergency situation but I thought I needed a vet that day.  They said a vet would be out around lunchtime.  I asked if I could call back if the situation changed and they said yes. 

So I waited.  

I tried to get my day's work done (and I did) but I was checking on Napoleon about every 20 minutes.  Around 10am, I walked outside to the horrifying scene of him rolled out flat on his side.  I had the vet's office ringing before I even made it to him.

"He's gone flat out on me.  Is there any way someone can come sooner?"

"He's on the way!"

I knew rolling flat out was bad.  This is how cows die. I propped him up on a haybale so he'd be in the proper cow position. Then I ran back to the house to mix up another quart of warm molasses water. I tubed him again.  

By the time the vet arrived (and he was there QUICK!), Napoleon had perked up some.  He was still dull but he didn't have that, "I'm trying to die" look about him anymore.  This made him look like he wasn't quite in the dire circumstances I had claimed he was in.

Thanks, Napoleon! πŸ™„

Although at this point he hadn't had a bowel movement in at least 18 hours, there was nothing obvious that should be making him act so dumpy. 

  • heart rate normal
  • rumen sounds normal
  • recheck of testicles and sheath -- normal
  • no temperature
  • no limp
  • he still had some interest in food (treats in a bucket)

All signs pointed to a healthy, normal bull, but **I** knew he wasn't.

The decision was made to give him a bag of fluids -- probably to appease me because... yeah, I advocated for him.  Then came the realization that the jugular was impossible to find. (Huh. Looks like maybe I was right about the dehydration! πŸ˜‚)  After 6 sticks, there was no IV success, so he ran two bags of fluids sub Q (meaning under the skin), one on each shoulder blade. 

Those two bags of fluids were absorbed in about 20 minutes 😳

He also got Excede (an antibiotic), b-12, banamine (pain medicine), and multiminn (more vitamins). 

The instructions from the vet were, "If he is not 100% himself in the morning, bring me two tubes of blood." (no jugular success while the vet was there so no blood samples). 

On the advice of a 25-year veteran of breeding Dexter cattle, I gave him 15cc of B-Complex as soon as the vet left.  Late that evening, I gave him 15cc more.  

This was the daylight scene on Thursday morning. 🀦‍♀️

Uggghhhh... Clearly, he was not back to himself.  I tubed him again!

I was too afraid to try a jugular draw without the squeeze chute to restrain him so we started the 100-yard walk from the quarantine pen to the chute.  About halfway there, he just fell out on me.  This is not a temper tantrum style "I don't want to walk on the halter" kind of fit.  He got wobbly and just fell over.  I rolled him up on his tummy into the normal cow position and scotched him there with my leg.  It took about 10 minutes for him to recover enough to get up and walk the rest of the way.

I still could not see his jugular vein AT ALL.  I said a little prayer, made an educated guess and with a little guidance from the hand of God, I got the blood I needed on the third stick.  While I had him restrained I gave him 10cc's more of B-Complex.  (If you're keeping count, that's 40cc in about 15 hours!).  Two red-top tubes were filled and driven to the vet's office only to find out they needed a purple top tube. Oy... 🀦‍♀️

Back home (on the other side of the county!) I found him rolled out flat again.  The vet tech told me she only needed 1cc of blood to run the tests so with him lying flat out, I went for the tail vein.  2cc of blood in the tube and he never even opened his eyes.  I sent that lovely purple top tube back to the vet's office by my personal mom and dad courier since I needed to teach a live, online class.  Thanks, mom and dad!

When I was done teaching the one-hour class, he was up.  Not only was he up, he had his sparkle back.  He was bright and alert and the dumpy demeanor was GONE!


He grazed for 2 hours nonstop and visited the water trough in the quarantine pen several times. MY BOY WAS BACK!!!  Not surprisingly, his bloodwork came back perfect.  He was up and acting normally less than 2 hours after the blood draw. 

Yes, he had antibiotics.  Yes, he had banamine for pain.  Yes, he had a LOT of vitamins. He also had 2 bags of sub-q fluids and I had tubed fluids into him 6-8 times altogether. So then comes the discussion...  What comes on that quickly and leaves just as quickly with no real cause or symptoms other than dumpy, depressed behavior? 

We just kept coming back to dehydration. 

We may never know exactly what it was, but at this point I'm convinced -- he couldn't figure out how to get to the water in our ball waterer. We use these because the water doesn't evaporate in the summer (we're on a well) or freeze in the winter, nor can mosquitos use it for propagation like an open trough.  It's a win/win!  At first glance, it makes no sense that the ball waterer could be the culprit because he's been in the pasture for about a month. He'd be long since dead if he hadn't drank for a month!

There was one little detail we had failed to consider...

We had the pasture he and the heifers are in split in half with a temporary fence so our steers that went to freezer camp last week could be on pasture. There was an open water trough on that temporary fence so the steers would have access to water. Napoleon could have accessed it too. When the steers left, I put the water trough in the shed and pulled up the fence so the heifers would have access to the whole pasture leaving nothing but the ball waterer.

It never dawned on me that Napoleon might not understand how to use the ball waterer. We even have Frost and Sarah, our two livestock guardian dogs, trained to drink out of it.

With no diarrhea, dehydration does not make sense... unless he couldn't figure out the waterer. When I realized he was in a bad way, it had been 5 days since I picked up the water trough that the steers had been using. This is the only thing that really explains his quick downturn and equally quick recovery... at least in my mind.  If I hadn't tubed him repeatedly and gotten the sub-q fluids, I don't even want to think of what might have happened!

Today, Saturday, just three days after finding him rolled out flat in the "I'm trying to die" position, he's back out in the pasture with the heifers and acting 100% normal.  There's a big chunk of concrete block in the waterer holding down one of the balls.  I'll leave it like this until I'm convinced he knows this is the water source.  Then he should know to push the ball out of the way to drink.

$500 in vet bills later, now we know -- don't just assume new animals will learn by watching the other cows that use the ball waterers.  Pin down one ball with a rock for a while! 

This was one e.x.p.e.n.s.i.v.e. lesson 🀦‍β™€οΈπŸ˜‚

Beware of Ball Waterers

Dexter Bulls

Dexter Conformation