What is hypomagnesemia and how can hay fertilized with Chicken and Swine Litter cause this condition?

When Hypocalcemia is found in a member of ones flock, one is cautioned to watch the other pregnant ewes closely.  This condition is often caused by some type of feed mismanagement.  When Freedom became deathy ill with diagnosed Hypocalcemia, I assumed that she had NOT eaten the loose minerals and since she is an older ewe and was a bit under conditioned. . . I reasoned that it seemed logical that her condition was caused by failing to consume the loose mineral.


On Sunday afternoon, I had another ewe begin to exhibit symptoms of the same problem.  I acted quickly and began treatment.  At the same time, I now KNEW that I MUST have a food management issue somewhere!!!   In the past, I’ve consulted in great detail with Southern States about my individual horse nutritional requirements.  Southern States consultants have always been amazingly helpful.  So, I got on the phone with Jim Sherman over there.  Within 30 seconds, he had the answer!!  As soon as Jim knew that I was feeding local Bermuda hay on zero grazing while resting pastures (with loose Southern States minerals and protein blocks) he figured it out!  Jim knows my area well.  He knows that we are heavy in chicken farm producers here.  He knows that chicken and swine litter are a cheap type of fertilizer and that local hay here is heavily fertilized with chicken and swine manure.  He said that the hay harvested on these fields is notoriously deficient in Magnesium.  Without Magnesium, calcium cannot be utilized by the body.  He reasoned that this is WHY I am having to continue constant calcium injections.  This condition is called hypomagnesemia and can present with the same symptoms as hypocalcemia. Wow!  Brilliant!

Here is what he told me to do:


50 lbs loose mineral

10 lbs Magnesium Oxide

20 lbs Cotton Seed Meal or Middlings or other palatable meal

Feed Free Choice

AND, OBVIOUSLY – Change hay to something from out of the area.

By late afternoon, the flock was gobbling up this mixture and had KY hay!

As of today, there is an amazing improvement.  Some ewes were showing subclinical signs and have perked back up.  Freedom is requiring VERY reduced calcium injectible and went back on feed!

I believe Jim Sherman just may have prevented a complete disaster at my farm.  God Bless him!!  Thanks Jim!!

Future Plans – TEST MY HAYS!!    Oh, how I hate learning the hard way . . . .

Aysha Having Begun Showing Subclinical Signs


61 Responses to “What is hypomagnesemia and how can hay fertilized with Chicken and Swine Litter cause this condition?”

  1. Wow!! This guy was great. I’m not sure I know anyone that has THAT depth of information around here. I’m so very happy you have him and access to everything you needed to rectify the situation!!! Ought to save you some money in the long run.

    Love you!

    • I also found out today that fertilizing with chicken and swine litter can lead to toxic COPPER levels! I sure hope we have this figured out. My poor sheep! Thanks Laura. Love you too!

      Shannon, if you read this, please share your info. about the copper issues. You never know, it might save a sheep! (I know you’re busy, so whenever you get around to it.) Thanks!

  2. I learned years ago (the hard way) that any fertilizers used for your hay or your feed are being fed to your sheep. While we can read the analysis on the tag on the feed bags, hay doesn’t come with a tag. So many shepherds don’t consider the mineral (or even the protein) composition of their hay or pastures when formulating rations. When you consider that roughage generally makes up at least 3/4 of a sheep’s ration, you realize that we can’t just say “grass hay” or “legume hay”. We need to know more than that. Thank you for bringing up this very important issue.

    • And you are also getting many of the chemicals/medications/drugs the chicks were fed. Commercial chicken litter is not an ‘organic’ fertilizer. My Bermuda guy doesn’t like chicken litter. Our county growers (fescue/orchard grass/weed) do use chicken litter, but supplement with lime/magnesium. For a few years, the county growers were not using chicken litter as often as the chicken houses were not being cleaned after every batch.
      My two hay suppliers are two of the smartest people I know. I got to rereading your post and realized how lucky I am to know my suppliers, their practices, and their fields. I don’t feel quite as lucky the days we load hay from the field 😀

      • Linda,
        Much more of a learning curve than anticipated this season. This experience has sharpened my math, science, and problem solving skills!
        You really are very fortunate to have great local hay producers that care about more than the bottom line. Oh, and you are very welcome. I really hope that posting this will help someone else avoid this type of problem. I apparently must learn the hard way! But, others might learn the easy way!!

      • Linda, You are so right about the chemicals/medications/drugs. I never gave this much thought. This litter fertilizer is absolutely GROSS!!! and disgusting! YUCK!

  3. So pleased to hear this new info which helps make sense of what you were seeing. And delighted to hear the sheep are feeling better :).
    I don’t think I’ve appreciated how lucky we’ve been. I’m reminded of when we sold some sheep to a guy in Eastern KY and one of the ewes had a lamb with white muscle disease – I think it’s a selenium deficiency. We’d never come across such a thing but later, talking to a sheep producer in Lexington learned it’s a problem in that part of the state that needs active attention to avoid. Someone else we knew lost almost their entire flock to a batch of feed with too high copper levels. It’s a constant learning process eh? But you must be so relieved!
    I’m enjoying the updates and love the new photos on the website.

  4. What did UGA find in Freedom’s blood scan?

    • They found low calcium, but did not mention magnesium. I am going to call and ask them on that. Didn’t get to that today. It will be interesting to know that bit of info.

      • When I get my personal blood scans, it shows everything. I always get a copy of the scan, which shows every mineral/enzyme/weird little bugger that is wandering through my blood stream. I have no idea if that shows up in what they do at UGA.

  5. Always something to learn! Our farm is an old chicken farm. When we moved here we had 4 barns that covered an acre of ground and at one time house 22,000 chickens each. We didn’t think anything of it until we took a forage and nutrition class and everyone took soil samples and had them tested. Our organic matter was through the roof and the instructor wanted to know where we lived 😉 Once we told him that it was an old chicken farm and that we currently were raising sheep he became very alarmed. He told us that it is a common practice to feed large amounts of copper…it increases growth rate in chickens. We took forage samples the next day and were relieved when the reports came back and found the copper levels to be ok. It was a little tense here while we waited for the report to come back…I didn’t want the sheep eating a single blade of grass! If you don’t have a good extension service, you can send your samples to Dairy One – http://www.dairyone.com/ They are very helpful and I try to send hay samples there every year. We are fortunate that our neighbor and uncle are our hay sources. I know exactly what goes on the fields. Glad you were able to get answers and I still can’t believe UGA didn’t catch this!

  6. I have heard the same thing about copper, which makes it very scary. No way to test for copper levels except for a biopsy of the liver from a dead sheep. I agree that you are on the right path

    • Thanks Shannon. I hope you had some sleep last night. Last night was a bit rough due to the cold temps. Seems they need more calcium when the temp drops in order for their muscles to help keep them warm. Thought about this last night (in my waking hours…) I am feeding a good amount of alfalfa now as mainly it keeps them eating well. Now that we’ve determined that this is more of a grass/hay tetany, I wonder if the alfalfa is okay to feed? At UGA they let Freedom have Alfalfa completely free choice, so I feel certain THEY considered it safe. This is a drop dead gorgeous leafy western alfalfa hay. Let me know if you have any thoughts on that part of the equation. I currently have Freedom with free choice alfalfa and a orchard/alfalfa/timothy mix as an alternative when she tires of the alfalfa alone. She goes back and forth. The other girls get a flake of alfalfa split among 4 of them each day and then free choice on the orchard/alfalfa/timothy mix. Info on the internet is very much conflicting on the feeding of alfalfa in late gestation. I find places that say YES and places that say No.

  7. We ended up feeding just alfalfa to our pregnant ewes and it seemed very successful. Initially we fed an alfalfa / orchard grass mix supplemented with grain and were hesitant to go exclusively to alfalfa since some sources seemed to indicate we might run into digestive problems with a too high protein (lugume) feed and/ or lambs might be too big. This was not our experience. We settled on alfalfa (cautiously initially), in part because of the amount of waste with other hays we tried – we got really fed up with the piles on the floor of the barn that eventually had to be cleaned up and thrown away after messing up the fleeces. Despite the initially higher price/bale we thought in the long run it was more cost effective – and would have been even more so had we had a “hay-chopping” tool to cut the hay into bite-sized chunks. We didn’t supplement with grain even towards the end of pregnancy because we worried they’d have too rich a diet and the alfalfa seemed to maintain their condition and lambs were a healthy size. We weren’t aware of the mineral differences between hays. I didn’t give them ad lib alfalfa though – tried roughly to work out how much they needed / day and then fed morning and evening.

  8. Talk to some of the Colorado breeders. I know that Mickey feeds alfalfa exclusively and I think Jennifer might also. Doesn’t Molly use alfalfa hay? Seems she mentioned that when we got the lambs from her.
    I supplement with alfalfa cubes and pellets during pregnancy – measured, not free choice.
    I know at least one breeder that used Chafehay (the alfalfa version) with good results.

    • Linda, Good idea. Molly has soooo much pasture that I believe she doesn’t feed too much hay. But, I will email and ask her about that. At least with cubes and pellets, I’d know the nutritional info. Same with the Chafe. Most of them love all of these things.

      Asked UGA to send cc of test results. He said he will convert to PDF and send. He said the magnesium was at a level that did not alarm them. I can’t wait to get my hands on that info. I will also get the hay tested and get to the bottom of this crazyness.


      • Mickey and Jennifer dry lot. I know that Mickey feeds very little grain, but not sure about Jennifer. Mickey didn’t breed this year :-(, but has for a number of years.

  9. This is always a great place to go to learn something. Donna over at Schoonover Farm is having a discussion about copper that is right up your alley. http://schoonoverfarm.wordpress.com/

  10. We don’t have access to alfalfa so are augmenting the hopefully pregnant sheep with a little grain at night, will this be OK?

    • What type of hay and grain are you feeding? I suppose considering my recent history, I might not be a great person to ask. Ha. But, if you post what you’re feeding and when . . . I think you’ll get other responses in addition to mine. Absolutely and definitely make sure they are consuming sheep minerals and drinking too. Hope you are staying warm. I know it’s been a tough one up there!

  11. Any clues to the problem with the blood scans from UGA? Hope she is out there getting ready to deliver healthy beautiful twins.

    • Freedom is doing well again. Eating really well, but not on feed. Her skin is getting very thin for some reason and when I inject her, she bleeds. It is scaring me to death. I had the vet do a pelvic exam today. She has been laboring after the calcium injections and then she stops. He said that all is fine and he feels it will be a few days yet.

      Aysha is doing quite poorly now and I’ve been unable to turn her around. The local vet pulled blood and will know more tomorrow. She is very much off feed and water and I’m doing a lot of injections and drenching. I hope she decides to be as tough as Freedom. I am simply exhausted. I sent the pdf blood work from UGA to the local vet and he said that there was nothing terribly alarming. Aysha looks like she is pre-laboring and is very uncomfortable. She has dropped within the last day, but isn’t due until 2/13! All I can say is HELP! I had better get some sleep. Thanks for checking. Hopefully, tomorrow will bring sunshine and a ewe that is eating and drinking.

      • I have my fingers tightly crossed for your girls.

      • Thanks Linda. I am waiting on the blood work and am probably going to head back go UGA. I think I must do so for Aysha. And, Freedom’s skin is such. A mess from the calcium sub q that the skin is splitting and dripping blood when I inject. Literally dripping blood down her side onto the staw. I used blood stop last night to get it to stop. It is horrible. Other than that, she is in great shape. But, I will take her back to UGA for IV in order to give her skin a change to heal. The previous blood work showed low platelets which improved while she was a UGA. I imagine this is a side effect of the massive amount of calcium which is actually not designed for sub q administration. I simply cannot inject her anymore. It makes me cry…. Horrible, but at least he is up and feeling quite well. Hubby and I talked this am and decided that UGA is our only option for my own mental sanity and their well-being. I will try to. Update this evening when I get back. I feel like all will be okay once IV therapy starts for both ewes. Wow. Wake me up from this bad dream please. If this happens to any other ewes, you can look me up in the nearest asylum.

  12. Shari,
    Thinking of you, so sorry this is so difficult. Hope UGA can help Aysha get well – sounds as though Freedom is improving tho the bleeding sounds grim. Lots of people rooting for y’all. Hang in there, Hugs

    • Thanks Sally. We are back. Vets were happy with Freedom although her calcium is still a bit low. She will be fine and I am so glad that she should deliver there just in case anything goes wrong. Her skin could not take any more and I couldn’t do it to her without sobbing through it…. Poor little dear. Aysha is the worrisome one. I could not get her snap out of it. The cold rain sent her over to the dark side. The vets have had the talk with me to prepare for the possibility of removing the fetuses. She is due 2/13. She is very large and might have triplets. So, I am just hoping that she can turn around. I will update as soon as I get any word. Thanks for all of the kind words of encouragement.

  13. Looks like I need to pray for you and your sheep, Hopefully UGA will give you a break on the costs this time. I can’t imagine how you will handle things if Aysha doesn’t turn around.

    • Thanks Chai Chai. I should hear something this morning, very soon. I hope that no news through the night is good news. They would have called if they felt they needed to end the pregnancy. Jacobs are amazing sheep. I am hopeful that Aysha will show the vets how strong this breed can be compared to the commercial breeds that they might normally see there. I sure do appreciate the prayers and thoughtfulness!

    • Good news this morning from UGA. BOTH ewes are eating and chewing cud! Hurray! They will bring in Norman to transfer rumen fluid tomorrow and that should help things even more. Biggest concern with Aysha is that she is weight shifting and they think her feet are showing laminitis possibly due to an overall inflammation response. They gave banamine and will continue pain management for that. Calcium is now stable on both ewes via IV fluids. I had a great night’s sleep and today is SUNNY! Thanks everyone for the support! It’s a brighter day at Never Winter!!!

  14. That is good news 🙂
    Are Freedom’s lambs due about now?
    What is ‘weight shifting”? When lambs drop in utero to the brithing position? Shifting weight from foot to foot?
    Glad things are sunnier for you.

  15. Great news! It must be wonderful to get a break from giving all those horrible (but life saving) injections.

    • Chai Chai,

      Yes! Amazing to NOT be giving those horrible injections. I talked to the doc at uga today. They have hung sheets around the stall so that the girls can have privacy for delivery. The UGA Vet students are excited and in for a rare treat! (They should really be paying me, right?)

  16. Yes, paying you IS right ! My heart goes out to you and the girls. What a tough ordeal you have been in. In reading all the updates I can tell that you really love your sheep and will do just about anything to help them through. I have to admire your determination… My prayers and hopes go out to all of you and please let us know about the new arrivals.

    • Hi Mary!

      Thanks so much for the kind words and thoughts and prayers. The girls are apparently doing beautifully. Amazing what an IV can do in a time like this. The moment I hear anything from UGA about lambs, I’ll post an update. I am VERY disappointed that I won’t be there when Freedom’s lambs are born. But, the good thing is, I get to keep sleeping rather than be in the barn waiting and worrying that something would go wrong at delivery due to a weak ewe and/or weak lambs. I had been told to be ready to assist the delivery and to quick to do so. So, as you can imagine, I was afraid to go to sleep for more than two hours at a time. My other ewes are all looking great. I am a bit paranoid that it could happen again. Hopefully, I got their hay and mineral supplements figured out in time to prevent any further issues. I cannot tell you my aversion to giving those calcium shots EVER again.

      How are your lambs, Mary?

      • Very happy to hear the ewes are doing well. Freedom (historically)has never had any difficulties lambing, in fact last year she gave a demonstration of how it’s done to a 12 year old who was helping around the farm. She was so inspiring that our helper decided to stay the night and get up with me in the wee hours to check the rest of the flock! Hopefully both Freedom and Aysha are gaining strength for lambing – but what can they be waiting for? I remember well the weeks before lambing began – despite keeping good track of dates (well, good track of when the rams went in) they always seemed to start lambing 2 weeks after I thought they would! Glad you can get some rest before the rest of the flock begin multiplying. I’m with the “UGA should be paying you” faction, but yea for IV’s. Thanks for the updates Shari

  17. It is nice that you don’t have to worry about delivery now. Get some good sleep so you can enjoy those precious lambs when they get back. Our lambs are doing great, we expect two more ewes to lamb at the end of the week.
    My wonderful husband bought me a barn camera last year so I can lay in bed and watch the sheep when they are close to delivery. I made it out there to witness Rosemary having her lambs. As crazy as you might think, I really enjoy watching them give birth. Can’t wait to see your babies., how very special they will be.

    • I have to say that I will never tire of watching lambs born. I check them not so much because I think they need me there, but because I can’t wait to see the new lambs.

    • A barn camera sounds pretty good to me, Mary! I would consider that a VERY romantic and thoughtful gift. (Who needs jewelry? I was telling my husband that more fencing would be a great V-day gift. Haha.)

      The update today from UGA is that both ewes are doing wonderfully. They are taking out the IVs to see how they do on their own. They are expecting Freedom to lamb at any moment and are on full watch.

      I do not expect any problems with lambing now that they are fully hydrated and feeling strong again and now that calcium levels are where they needed to be.

      I also LOVE to watch deliveries! I suppose I’ll get plenty of that yet this season, though.

      I had Freedom’s due date estimated on paper as 2/6. But, I suppose she’ll hold on to them as long as she can considering she isn’t at home.

      Sally, You are so right. It seems like just when you think they couldn’t possibly go any longer, they make us wait. On several of mine, I witnessed the breeding. On those I have good due dates. Poppy is looking large enough to give me twins. I have Liberty due on 2/18, Haven 2/20, Poppy 2/23, Eire 2/26, Carmen 2/27, Brena 2/28, Lavender 3/3. Margaret should go any time in there. Then, I have a break until April when Cayden, Spirit, and possibly some yrlg ewes to go.

      Let the lambing begin!!! Meantime, I WILL be treasuring my sleep.

      • What do you figure as the gestation period? The average is supposed to be 147 days on sheep, but I see 149 days most often with my Jacobs. But, am not surprised by a few days earlier or later.

  18. My estimates are based on 148 days.

  19. Hi all! UGA called and Freedom has delivered twins! A ram and a ewe. Both very healthy and nursing well! I am waiting for more details. I am also hoping that the Vet can use his phone to email me a photo or two to upload here. Stay tuned…….

    We did it!!!!! Thank you all for the amazing support!

  20. Yeaaaaaaa. Congrats and I’m very happy for all of you. Can’t wait to see the twins. Funny, I feel more happy for your twins than mine???

  21. Hooray! Can’t wait to see pics! Congrats 🙂

    • I asked the vet what color they are and he said that they are white with black spots. I asked if he was sure the spots are black and he said yes. That’s all I know. I am hoping that he will take the time to get a student to email me a photo via cell phone camera.

      Aysha had low calcium again and they are going back to calcium supplementation via IV. They may decide to induce this weekend on her. She is doing well and eating nicely.

      I could pick up Freedom now, but Aysha needs company. So, waiting a couple of days to see what the plan is by weekend (for Aysha.)

  22. Hurray! Great news. When you pick them up I sure hope the UGA vet students won’t be too surprised when you present them with your invoice for “Lab classroom supplies”.

  23. That is fantastic news!!!! I hope Aysha lambs soon and that all is well 🙂 Looking forward to seeing pictures of lambs…as I’m sure you are too!

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