Keep an eye out for post-flood cattle health problems


Water flowing through cattle feedlot.

AMES, Iowa – As Northwest Iowa and regions of surrounding states deal with devastating flooding, area cattle producers should be aware of the plethora of health problems that could be caused by flooding. Iowa State University extension beef specialist Chris Clark said severe flooding can increase the risk for numerous health challenges including malnutrition, respiratory disease, ruminal acidosis, poisoning and more.

"The sky is the limit in terms of what can go wrong during and following flooding events. In severe flooding events, cattle can actually wash away or drown," he said. "Stress can cause immunosuppression and aspiration of water can cause respiratory disease. Housing and feeding systems are often damaged or destroyed and getting cattle back on feed while protecting rumen health can be challenging."

Clark also urged producers to remember that access to clean water may be limited. This increases the potential for dehydration, poisoning and disease related to the intake of impure water.

Provision of dry housing, clean water, and feed are critical. Cattle may need to be moved to higher ground or even out of the local region to an area not affected by flooding. Housing should be provided to facilitate rest, rehydration and recovery. A major component of this is access to dry ground and bedding to allow skin and coat to dry and to support rest. Clean water must be provided and cattle must have access to quality feed. Care must be taken to provide adequate nutrition and to protect rumen health.

“For cow-calf operations, feeding is probably relatively straightforward. Good quality grass hay, perhaps access to pasture, maybe some low-starch supplemental concentrate probably makes a lot of sense," Clark said. "The scenario is more complicated for feedlot cattle that may be adapted to a nutrient dense, high starch diet. Great care must be taken to safely get those cattle back on feed. In some cases, those cattle will need to be backed up to higher roughage, lower starch diets and then over time, producers can work them back up.”

Flooding can sometimes separate nursing calves from cows. Depending on calf age, this can cause great stress and malnutrition. Older calves may be able to fend for themselves on available grass and any provided feed while younger calves may quickly become malnourished due to lack of access to milk. Assuming calves and cows can be reunited, there could be pairing issues and the possibility of cows not accepting calves, or cows and calves not finding one another.

"Reuniting those pairs quickly is a big deal to minimize stress, provide sustenance to the calves and facilitate pairing. The longer those pairs are separated from one another, the more challenging the situation will become,” Clark said.

For human and animal safety, producers should be aware of the possibility that stray voltage could reach flood waters, and great care should be taken to avoid electrocution. Flood water can carry an unlimited number of contaminants and can wash up foreign materials that can cause problems even after flood waters recede.

“After flood waters recede, it will be important for producers to walk fields and lots to look for foreign materials that may cause injury, illness, or toxicity," he said. "For example, I have heard of car batteries washing into fields and causing lead toxicity in cattle.”

Increased awareness of these risks may help solve and prevent at least some of the problems associated with flooding. Many producers will likely need assistance whether that be in the form of labor, money, feed, housing for livestock, etc. Affected producers should contact their local Farm Service Agency with documentation to report losses and to apply for financial assistance. Producers may need to contact veterinarians, nutritionists, extension specialists, and other industry professionals for assistance.

Disasters of this magnitude can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety. Producers feeling overwhelmed should consider reaching out to Iowa Concern for assistance. The Iowa Concern Hotline is always available at 800-447-1985, and at

For more flood information and resources, see the Iowa Beef Center flood resources page and this ISU extension flood page.

For more information, contact Clark at or by phone at 712-250-0070.



The Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University was established in 1996 with the goal of supporting the growth and vitality of the state’s beef cattle industry. It comprises faculty and staff from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine, and works to develop and deliver the latest research-based information regarding the beef cattle industry. For more information about IBC, visit

Chris Clark, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist, 712-250-0070,

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