Mud Management for Livestock Producers

March 8, 2021

Chris LeMaster, Livestock & Forage Agent

Mud is a universal issue among all species of livestock, and South Carolina’s mild winters and heavy rainfall contribute to its abundance. While mud is not unique to winter, it is usually a greater concern during periods of heavy feeding. Join us on March 18th from 12 to 12:45 to discuss the challenges of mud as it relates to animal health and nutrition, as well as issues with pasture and soil damage. You must register to attend this free, virtual event.

Animals use more energy standing and moving across soft muddy ground than hardened or dry surfaces. The increased difficulty of traveling through the mud for feed and water has a compounding effect by decreasing intake and increasing energy requirements, which can decrease animal performance up to 25%. This can affect the profitability of production animals such as cattle. The Alberta Feedlot Management guide reports cattle standing in four to eight inches of mud can experience an 8% to 15% decrease in feed intake and a 14% decrease in daily gains. In hock-deep mud of twelve to twenty-four inches, expect a reduction of 30% in feed intake and a 25% decrease in daily gains. Muddy conditions also reduce the animal’s ability to maintain critical body temperature. Mud-caked coats reduce insulation and thereby increase energy demands to maintain core body temperatures, which have negative effects both in summer and winter. These environmental stressors can decrease the animal’s immune response and predispose it to infections such as foot rot. Additionally, muddy conditions can lead to abscesses, poor udder hygiene, increased calf sickness, and calving problems. For equine, slick conditions can increase the risk of injury.

Congregation and high traffic areas around gates, feeding, or watering areas are the most difficult areas to keep free of mud. These heavy-use areas are often over-grazed, exposing bare ground that is further devastated by hoof traffic and feeding machinery. Furthermore, the standing pressure of cattle and horses, at 27 pounds per square inch (psi), is twice that of a human at 14 psi, whereas tractors place 175 psi on the soil. Many South Carolina soils can withstand pressures up to 28 psi when dry but will quickly weaken when wet.

Allowing livestock to graze wet pastures can crush and bruise plants while damaging soil structure. Treading damage from grazing livestock exposes bare soil, increases compaction, and reduces soil infiltration rates. Compaction in the soil further reduces plant and root growth, the water-holding capacity of the soil, and infiltration rates compounding the poor drainage issues in the pasture. Bare soil also increases the risk of erosion and nutrient run-off. Research in New Zealand documented a 50% to 64% reduction in spring pasture productivity following wet winter treading damage.

Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” solution to managing mud; however, there is a systems approach requiring many small changes to your operation and feeding practices. View Clemson’s Land-Grant Press article for more information, references for data in this blog, and mitigation recommendations.  Some of these recommendations can (and should be) implemented immediately, however many require dry weather and time to get satisfactory results.


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