July 2009 Issue

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RUMEN FUNCTION
Understanding How It Works and Its Importance to Goat Health

A healthy rumen is about 70% water and has a neutral pH of 6.8 to 7.0. This article will explain in simplied terms why these conditions are critical to the good health of goats and why changes in pH can quickly result in sick and dead goats.

Understanding the pH scale is essential. The pH scale measures the acidity or alkalinity of a solution -- in the goat's case, the acidity or alkalinity of the rumen. The "H" stands for hydrogen. The concentration and function of hydrogen ions are critical to living organisms because they have the ability to alter the form of other molecules in solution. The "p" designation is believed to represent "power," as in the "power of hydrogen."

A neutral pH is 7.0, which is also the pH of pure water. How the goat digests what it eats depends upon the pH of the rumen and the changes that occur when long fiber (roughage) or grain concentrates are consumed. A pH of less than 7.0 is acidic (think "ruminal acidosis") and above 7.0 is alkaline (also known as "basic"). The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. Milk of Magnesia, for example, has a pH of 10 (alkaline). Bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) is also alkaline and can help an acidic rumen move back to a neutral pH. Overly alkaline rumens can be moved back to a neutral pH by buffers that are acidic. What and how much the goat eats directly affects the pH of the rumen and its overall health. Always remember that you are feeding the rumen rather than the goat.

Goats digest food in a series of four stomachs and use bacteria to break down food into useable nutrients. A rumen is a magnificent fermentation vat. The cud is food that the goat has swallowed virtually whole and then regurgigated in slightly digested form for chewing and further digestive action. The goat's entire mouth (lips, tongue) is prehensile -- like the opposable thumb in humans -- allowing it to break off, pull, and eat plant materials.

Micro-organisms that break down grain concentrates multiply more quickly than micro-organisms that break down long fiber (roughage) and tend to increase acidic conditions in the rumen that can lead to ruminal acidosis. Forage/browse and hay are roughages that increase rumen activity by rubbing against the insides of the rumen to create heat and digestion. This roughage action of long-stem fibers causes contractions in the muscles in the walls of the rumen that keep its contents mixed and ready for micro-organisms to break down for digestion. Body heat is caused by the fermentation of the foodstuffs in the rumen. Fermentation of roughage actually creates greater heat than starches and sugars (grain concentrates), keeping the goat's body temperature regulated. Roughages also have the effect of stimulating saliva production as the goat chews its cud, buffering the rumen fluids with bicarbonates and helping prevent acidosis. That's why feeding hay at night is far superior to feeding sacked grains. Long fiber should also be fed in the mornings before grains are offered. In fact, long fiber should be available free choice.

Subscribe FREE now! Monthly issues with new articles and other educational information on meat goat health, nutrition, and management written by Suzanne W. Gasparotto of Onion Creek Ranch and Pat Cotten of Bending Tree Ranch. In all cases, it is your responsibility to obtain veterinary services and advice before using any of the information provided in these articles. Neither Suzanne Gasparotto nor Pat Cotten are veterinarians. None of the contributors to this website will be held responsible for the use of any information contained herein.


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Heavy grain feeding results in the production of too much lactic acid and alters the bacterial balance in the rumen to an acidic pH level. The bacteria that breaks down grain concentrates in the rumen into useable nutrients overwhelms the bacteria that breaks down long fiber, resulting in the over-production of lactic acid in a form that the liver cannot process. When the liver cannot process lactic acid, the bloodstream gets overloaded with it, causing a systemic (body-wide) acidosis that results in a very sick goat. Toxins build up and the rumen quits producing B vitamins. Immediate medical attention is needed or the goat will die a very painful death.

Interestingly, mild overeating can be somewhat self-correcting if the producer doesn't try to force the goat to eat grain but instead offers hay or forage, allowing the rumen function to slow but not stop completely. In a mild overeating situation, the goat quits eating, grinds it teeth, and groans, but continues to eat hay or forage, allowing the rumen pH to rise to try to correct the acidity. This is why it is so important not to offer the sick goat any grain to eat -- only green leaves, hay, and electrolytes. A heavy grain overload produces similar symptoms but constipation usually occurs before the diarrhea appears, and in addition to teeth grinding and groaning, the goat's heart rate increases, its body trembles, and its eyes appear sunken. The rumen gets sloshy as water is pulled from body tissues and dumped into the rumen (hyperosmosis). Ruminal acidosis is the result. A wise producer will assume that any overeating by the goat should be promptly treated rather than trying to discern whether it is a mild or severe case.

Any goat who has overeaten should be immediately treated with C&D anti-toxin available through Jeffers (not the toxoid vaccine), stomach tubed with mineral oil or given Milk of Magnesia orally, and kept hydrated with electrolytes. Refer to my website's Articles page on www.tennesseemeatgoats.com for articles on how to apply these treatments.

I want to thank Kent Mills, livestock nutritionist with HiPro Feeds, for his assistance in reviewing this article and critiquing it for accuracy and clarity. Kent teaches nutrition in understandable form at GoatCamp™ each October at my Texas ranch. Producers not educated in goat nutrition should not try to mix their own feeds or develop an overall nutritional program without the assistance of professionals. There is nothing more difficult or important than getting nutrition right in managed herds of goats. The overall health of the herd depends upon proper nutrition.

Suzanne W. Gasparotto ONION CREEK RANCH, Lohn, Texas 7/1/09

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