Milk Fever

Milk Fever.  No, it is not the intense craving you get for a glass of ice-cold milk or the belly ache you feel after competing in a milk drinking contest at the county fair.  Milk fever is a metabolic disorder caused by a low blood calcium level and is common among cows who are close to calving or recently gave birth.  We do our best to prevent the occurrence of milk fever, but occasionally it happens. In fact, it just happened yesterday.

Most  cases occur within one day of calving because milk and colostrum production drain calcium (and other substances) from the blood, and some cows are unable to replace the calcium quickly enough.  Other factors that put cows at risk for milk fever are:

  • Age. Heifers are rarely affected.  Older cows are at higher risk because they produce more milk and are less able to replace blood calcium.
  • Size. Fat cows have higher feed and calcium intakes putting them at risk.  That is why I always tell my pregnant cows to stay active while on maternity leave.  I have been thinking about offering cow yoga to the girls, but I doubt it will go over well.
  • Production. Cows that produce high yields of milk are likely to develop milk fever.
  • Dry Cow Management. The feeding management of dry cows in the 2 weeks before calving is very important, because it affects both the amount of calcium available to replace blood calcium and the efficiency with which the available calcium can be used.  We work closely with our nutritionist to formulate a specific ration to avoid milk fever.

We noticed 4054 was in labor and moved her into a calving pen.  Old 4054 was a textbook case of a cow with milk fever; she is an older cow in her 5th lactation, a bit overweight, and was a high yielding milk producer last lactation.  Like a said, a classic case.  On her way to the calving pen she fell down and wasn’t able to get back up, a common sign of milk fever.  Other signs include:

  • cold ears
  • low body temp
  • muscle tremors
  •  drowsiness.

Luckily this disorder is easily treatable and we were prepared.  My husband quickly began warming up a bottle of Calcium gluconate  and prepared to IV the down cow.  By administering calcium intravenously we were able to replace her blood calcium level and within minutes she was back on her feet.  Cows normally respond to the treatment very quickly.

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A couple of hours later 4054 gave birth to a healthy heifer calf and both are doing well today.  I am happy my husband and I were able to help this momma and  get her back to health.  Cows truly are domestic creatures and it makes me happy knowing we have a great herd of cattle that trust us to care for them and help them when they need it.

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Cows, Antibiotics, and You

See this happy, healthy cow chowing down on some TMR?  Well, last week she wasn’t so happy…or healthy; she had mastitis.  Mastitis is an inflammatory response to infection causing visibly abnormal milk (clots, off-color). As the extent of the inflammation increases, changes in the udder (swelling, heat, pain, redness) may also occur. Mastitis is caused any bacterial or mycotic organism that can invade tissue and cause infection.  We do our best to keep our cows and their environment clean and dry, but occasionally mastitis occurs.  Especially in the summer months when warmer weather allows bacteria to grow and spread at a more rapid rate.  On average, we have a couple of cases of mastitis per month; some more or less severe than others.  Either way, it is no fun.  Last week, this gal was in rough shape and we were working extra hours to fight the infection and make her feel better.

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Luckily, we had antibiotics to help us.  We use antibiotics only when warranted and find them to be a great tool when it comes to a sick animal.  Antibiotics, plenty of fluids and a little TLC brought this cow back to health and I am happy to report that she is back to her old self!  Without antibiotics to fight the infection, I am not sure if this girl would have made it.

Do you have to worry about the antibiotics given to this cow invading your dairy products? Absolutely not.  When a cow is given antibiotics, she is identified with a colored leg band and her milk is discarded.  Her milk cannot and will not enter the general milk supply.  This is a mandatory practice on every dairy farm.   On our dairy farm, we identify cows treated with antibiotics by placing two pink leg bands around each hind leg and moving the cow into the hospital pen.  These leg bands signal to everyone on the farm that this cow must  be milked into a bucket so that the milk can be disposed.  The leg bands will stay on the  cow and her milk will continue to be dumped until her milk tests negative for antibiotics.  We sample the cow’s milk and test it using this handy, little contraption and special test strips.

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Now, what if someone makes a mistake?  What if someone has their head in their butt and milks the cow with the rest of the herd? You still don’t need to worry.  Every load of milk that leaves our dairy is tested for antibiotics when it reaches the creamery.  If the load tests positive for antibiotics, the ENTIRE load of milk will be disposed of and the farm will be out a lot of money.  No dairy farmer wants to lose thousands of dollars or produce an unsafe product, so farmers take antibiotics very seriously.  We use antibiotics when necessary and follow the label’s instructions.  Farmers use antibiotics to help sick animals, while still producing a safe, quality product. Farmers are extremely careful when it comes to cows, antibiotics and you.  Long story-short, all dairy products are safe and nutritious.  No matter what your choice is in the dairy case, know it is safe.

Sometimes Cows Get Sick

Today we had to make a phone call to our veterinarian.  One of our cows that recently had a baby isn’t eating well, looks a little off and we suspect she has a displaced abomasum or a DA.  A displaced abomasum is basically a twisted stomach.  Cows have four stomach compartments, one of them being the abomasum.  When a cow is under stress and not eating well, her stomach can sometimes twist.  It is not uncommon among new mothers.

Our patient

As you could imagine, a cow is under quite a bit of stress after giving birth.  While there are many factors that can result into a DA, nutrition and transition are the primary factors.  Cows are VERY picky eaters and if we don’t feed them a precise diet they can sometimes get an upset stomach or worse, a DA.  A college professor once told me, “A cow will eat anything and produce well as long as it is exactly what she ate yesterday.” You can see the humor in this, as it is almost impossible to make a recipe exactly the same every time!  We work hard to feed them the best diet possible and help them transition into motherhood with ease, but sometimes cows get sick.

When we suspect a DA, we call our veterinarian and he comes to our farm as soon as possible to examine the cow.  Today we were right, the vet has confirmed a DA.  He does so by using a stethoscope to listen to the cow’s stomach.  So, the old gal has a DA and now we must begin surgery to untwist the stomach.   I will try to keep the pictures and details minimal for those with weak stomachs.

The first step is to sedate and numb the cow so she doesn’t feel anything.  The vet gives her just enough so that she can’t feel anything near the incision site, but is still able to remain standing.  The surgery cannot take place if the cow lies down.

Sedating the cow via vein in the tail

Sedating the cow via vein in the tail

Next, he will clip the hair and disinfect around the incision site.  It is important to keep everything clean and sterile to avoid infection.

Sterilizing the incision site

Sterilizing the incision site

The vet will then make the incision so he can reach the cow’s abomasum and manually untwist it.  After the stomach is untwisted and back to its normal position, the vet will stitch the cow up.

All stitched up!

All stitched up!

It is a pretty simple and quick procedure and the cow should be back to normal in no time.  We will keep the cow on antibiotics for a few days and continue to examine her daily.  Since the cow will be on antibiotics, we will put two pink leg bands on her rear legs.

Excuse her dusty hooves

Excuse her dusty hooves

This identifies to everyone on the farm that this cow has antibiotics in her system and that she CANNOT be milked with the rest of the herd.  Her milk must be separated and dumped.  Every tank of milk that leaves our farm is tested for antibiotics when it reaches the creamery. If a tank tests positive, the entire load of milk will be dumped down the drain.  That is A LOT of money.  We have never had anyone forget to separate a cow treated with antibiotics, because, let’s face it, who wants to be that guy?!

Any who, we will continue to observe and care for our patient.  I will try to keep you updated on her status.  I have no doubt that she is already feeling better and will be eating like pig in no time!