I am super picky about allowing garbage to fall on the ground on our farm. For one, my husband and I just both like a presentable-looking place. But more importantly, trash is really dangerous for ruminants. Just a tiny little sharp-cornered plastic label off the end of a two-by-four, like in the picture above, is something that can wreak havoc in a ruminant’s digestive system.

Cows are most well-known for getting “hardware disease,” but sheep and goats can get it too. It is caused by ingesting non-digestible trash. The most common things ruminants accidentally ingest are bits of wire, staples, nails, plastic bags, and baling twine. These are all things we have around farms, and things which can often end up either in grass fields or in feed troughs. Cows, sheep and goats tend to gorge big mouthfuls of food when they are eating something delicious, like a fresh patch of grass or newly offered hay or grain. So it’s easy for them to take in a foreign object and not notice.

We humans, and our canine friends, are fairly tolerant of accidentally consuming an indigestible object. We are omnivores, and our digestive systems have a better way of passing such objects, usually without catastrophic damage. Almost everyone has a funny family story about something their kid, or dog, has eaten, and later pooped! (At this point, my mom and dad will be chuckling, hehe; because when I was about six, I swallowed a rock and indeed there is an oft-told story there, of which parent got the verification job of making sure I eliminated it!)Smile A friend of mine once found one of those tennis-ball-sized pink rubber dog toys with a rubber loop attached- in his dog’s poop! So for whatever reason, humans and dogs have an amazing ability to just pass things straight on through.

But ruminants are different. Here is my basic understanding of why it matters in the case of hardware disease. When you check out a diagram of their four-chambered stomach (this one is from Susan Schoenian’s Sheep 101 page), you may spot the problem:


The opening between the omasum and abomasum is very small by design. It’s job is to contract and push large food particles back into the earlier compartments, to be subject to further digestive forces to break them down. So a plastic grocery bag lumped in with a big mouthful of hay goes into the rumen easily enough, tosses around in there, passes through the reticulum and into the omasum. And often there it stays, forever. Ruminant stomachs are a little like front-loader washing machines, their muscle action constantly rotates the contents within to aid digestion. So any kind of foreign object will just roll around in there, continually irritating the lining of the stomach. This can cause anything from mild ill thrift and discomfort, to death.

Twice I have seen such stomach objects personally. A friend of mine had a purchased, mature cow butchered; and the butcher handed him back the oddest looking rope twist that came out of her stomach. It was about as thick and long as my arm, and hard to even tell what it was made from. But the best guess would be many, many strands of plastic baling twine. The incredible tight twist showed how the stomach had turned this melded object hundreds, thousands, or millions of times over that cow’s lifetime. And this big lunk of a thing had been taking up room in her rumen for many years, clunking around in there and surely causing inflammation. I can’t remember why my friend had culled that cow, but perhaps her lack of performance was related to this handicap.

The second time I saw it was at WSU’s Sheep 101 class. We dissected a sheep’s digestive tract, and inside it found a white plastic bag, also twisted and shredded. This sheep had severe damage to the lining of her stomach chambers- we could scrape off all the papillae with the brush of a finger. So either she had acidosis from over-feeding grain, or this plastic bag had done a lot of damage in there, or both. The veterinarian instructor declared that the sheep’s owner was lucky to have butchered her that day, as she would have died soon otherwise. I remembered when we were going over the live animal, that this sheep showed abdominal tenderness. She flinched every time someone put their hands on her belly, and she stood a little hunched. So she was definitely suffering from the consequences of some poor care choices by her FFA youngster owner.

Some people feed cows a magnet bolus, so that at least any metal objects swallowed will stick to that and have some hope of being weighted down to the bottom of the omasum an minimizing movement and irritation. But of course prevention is the best cure in the case of hardware disease. So I try to be meticulous about picking up dropped trash, accounting for every nail and staple in a fencing project, and always picking up and disposing of both strings when opening a new bale of hay. And when purchasing sheep from someone, I feel it’s always good to have a look around at the farm; taking note of whether the proprietor is sloppy about leaving trash around, or keeps a neat and tidy place. Otherwise, you may never know what a poor ruminant has eaten, and is harboring in her stomach, potentially curtailing her productivity for a lifetime.