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Treating dairy cow indigestion with rumen transfaunation

E.J. DePeters and L.W. George Published on 24 February 2015

A rumen-fistulated Holstein cow

Rumen transfaunation: Taking rumen fluid from a healthy donor animal and orally transferring the rumen fluid to a recipient animal experiencing simple indigestion.

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Rumen transfaunation is a common practice to treat simple indigestion of dairy cattle. Transfaunation refers to transferring a broad spectrum of micro-organisms including bacteria, protozoa, fungi and archaea from the rumen of a healthy donor animal to the rumen of a sick recipient animal. The recipient animal can be one that is experiencing simple indigestion as well as an animal following correction of a displaced abomasum.

Ruminants are animals with a four-compartment stomach including the rumen (largest compartment), reticulum (honeycomb lining), omasum (many folds) and abomasum (gastric compartment). The rumen is a large, continuous anaerobic fermentation vat.

Opening the cannula

Micro-organisms living in the rumen allow ruminants like the dairy cow to digest the fibrous components of feed. The rumen functions in coordination with the reticulum to support contractions of the musculature that create the functions of rumination (cud chewing and rumen contractions) and eructation (gas release).

The dairy cow can be considered as a super-organism because it has a symbiotic relationship of life between the cells of the animal’s body and the rumen microbes. Factors affecting the viability of micro-organisms in the rumen, as well as anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract of the ruminant, impact the host animal.

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Rumen sampling

Feeding the dairy animal means you are feeding the micro-organisms in the rumen, so digestive upsets are a result of disturbances to the normal fermentation balance of microbes in the rumen.

Establishment of a microbial population in the rumen occurs quickly following birth in ruminants. The rumen of a newborn calf is faunated by its mother when she licks the calf as well as from the micro-organisms living in the environment around the calf. Microbial inoculation of the rumen occurs soon after birth to contribute to the development of a healthy ruminant.

Rumen transfaunation was a common practice centuries ago, well before our understanding of bacteriology and rumen micro-organisms. Farmers in the 1700s were reported to have transferred the cud from a healthy donor animal to a sick recipient animal as a practical method of treatment for indigestion.

removing rumen fluid

In the 1900s, scientists began to study the effects of inoculation with rumen fluid on rumen development in young calves. These studies contributed to our current understanding of the diverse rumen population of micro-organisms that thrive in a community of living organisms that is highly competitive.

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Applications of rumen transfaunation

Indigestion in dairy cattle reduces rumen motility and kills rumen microflora. Simple indigestion can be associated with sudden changes in dietary ingredients (e.g., transition period) or with anything that alters the consistency of the feeding program.

Such changes could include heat stress, feeding moldy feed, interruption of water sources or in situations where carrying capacity of pens exceeds headlocks. Competition for feedbunk space leads to slug feeding, sorting of feed ingredients and then to indigestion.

Syringe as a siphon

Dairy farmers should consider simple indigestion whenever multiple cows have a sudden onset of reduced appetite, whenever there is a sudden and otherwise unexplained drop in milk production or when cows develop diarrhea with undigested grain kernels.

Even though transfaunation of rumen fluid from a healthy donor animal to an animal with simple indigestion is a common, recommended practice for dairy cattle, there is little scientific information on the practice. Rumen transfaunation was successfully used in a clinical research setting with sheep that experienced simple indigestion associated with change of diet with fasting prior to surgery, shipping and handling stress. Rumen transfaunation of sheep post-operatively corrected simple indigestion.

Simple indigestion can be an issue during early lactation of the transition period when dietary changes require dairy cows to adjust to diets high in nonstructural carbohydrates that ferment rapidly in the rumen.

Rumen fluid collection

During the transition period around calving, cows experience not only diet changes but also physiological changes associated with parturition that can be exacerbated during periods of high environmental temperatures. During the transition period, cows are also moving from different pens, so social structure is changing, and this can be a stressor.

We conducted a field study to evaluate rumen transfaunation in the transition period of dairy cows. Four ruminally fistulated, lactating dairy cows receiving a TMR were used as donor animals. These four ruminally fistulated cows were managed similar to all other lactating cows and were provided no special considerations by the staff.

Rumen fluid transfaunation was one of four treatments applied where 11.4 liters of rumen fluid were transferred by oral stomach tubes into the rumen of fresh cows (donor cows) approximately 24 hours post-calving. Treatments were: control – no oral supplement, warm water via stomach tube, commercial product via stomach tube and rumen fluid via stomach tube.

Straining rumen fluid

The hypothesis was that rumen fluid transfaunation would improve the health of cows after calving. Compared with control, all oral treatments did not affect serum blood analytes, milk yield and animal health in a well-managed herd. A study involving a herd experiencing problems with simple indigestion might show a beneficial response.

Typically at the University of California – Davis dairy, we will transfaunate a sick cow one time with rumen fluid. But there are animals that do require a second (12 to 24 hours later) and even a third transfaunation (24 to 36 hours later).

Rumen transfaunation was used as an adjunctive treatment following surgical repair of left-displaced abomasum (LDA) at the large animal clinic of the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California – Davis. Rumen fluid (10 liters) obtained from two non-lactating, ruminally fistulated donor cows fed a forage diet (predominantly hay) was transferred by stomach tube (oral) within 20 minutes of rumen fluid collection to cows following surgery.

Stomach tube in cow

Control cows received only 10 liters of lukewarm tap water (no rumen fluid), also by stomach tube. Rumen fluid treatments occurred immediately following surgery and again on day 1 after surgery. Beginning on day 2, following surgery and for the next three days, rumen-transfaunated cows had higher dry matter intake and milk yield compared with control cows.

Rumen fluid pH and total concentration of volatile fatty acids did not differ for day post-surgery or between rumen-transfaunated and control treatments. Serum concentrations of beta-hydroxybutyrate on days 3 and 5 post-surgery were significantly lower in transfaunated cows than control cows. The authors concluded: “Administration of rumen fluid to cows convalescing after surgical correction of LDA had beneficial effects.”

Intrinsic aspects of transfaunatation

Even though we tend to think about the micro-organisms, rumen fluid contains many chemical constituents that likely contribute to the beneficial effects of transfaunation. Such factors include volatile fatty acids, bicarbonate buffers, proteins and amino acids, as well as many unidentified constituents in rumen fluid. These chemical entities might all stimulate microbial growth.

Magrath cattle pump system

Early researchers observed that branched-chain fatty acids stimulated the growth of cellulose-digesting bacteria. Thiamine, a B vitamin, produced by one organism stimulated the growth of other organisms.

These are just a few examples of how complex the rumen environment is and how interlinked the micro-organisms can be. The nutrients in rumen fluid transfaunate will likely benefit the growth of bacteria, protozoa, methanogens and fungi to restore normal microflora populations in the sick recipient.

The effects of mechanical stimulation by bulk activity of the transfaunate may also be beneficial. Transfaunation with 8 to 16 liters of rumen fluid in cattle could induce mechanical stimulation of tension receptors in the walls of the rumen and reticulum to stimulate rumination, salivation and normal rumen motility.

This illustrates that the impacts of rumen transfaunation are broader than just the micro-organisms.

Summary

Rumen transfaunation is a routine, widely accepted, successful procedure to treat simple indigestion in ruminants. The procedure also has clinical application for post-operative treatment of cattle with left-sided abomasal displacements.

Rumen fluid from a healthy donor provides the recipient with diverse micro-organisms that can repopulate the rumen. Transplanted rumen fluid also provides nutrients and energy to support a healthy rumen microbial population.PD

E. J. DePeters is with the Department of Animal Science and L.W. George is with the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California – Davis. DePeters can be contacted by email.

Click here for more information on the rumen fluid collection process.

PHOTOS
PHOTO 1: A rumen-fistulated Holstein cow (rumen fluid donor).

PHOTO 2: Opening the rumen cannula.

PHOTO 3: Sampling can be done using a PVC pipe with holes to reach the ventral rumen.

PHOTO 4: The ventral rumen contains more fluid.

PHOTO 5: A large syringe can be used to create a siphon.

PHOTO 6: Rumen fluid collection.

PHOTO 7: Straining rumen fluid.

PHOTO 8: Stomach tube is passed orally down the esophagus into the reticulo-rumen.

PHOTO 9: Rumen fluid from the donor is slowly pumped into the recipient. This is often called “The Magrath Cattle Pump System.” Photos courtesy of E.J. DePeters.

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