Preventing calf disease with modified rations

sDuring childbirth, the dairy cow needs a huge amount of calcium due to the sudden start of milk production, starting with colostrum. So the cow’s body must quickly adapt to meet this growing need. If the cow does not succeed, the cow will show the typical symptoms of milk fever. It is known that the animal is unable to straighten. The condition most commonly appears in the first 24 hours after birth, but can occur from 24 hours before birth up to 3 days after birth.

Cows initially get calcium from their blood. If they fail to do so, calcium is transported out of the bones by parathyroid hormone and via vitamin D, and more of the feed will be absorbed. Less calcium will also be excreted in the urine. If something goes wrong with these processes, a short-term calcium deficiency will occur. Consider eating less feed in the transitional period (perinatal period), so that less calcium is introduced.


Hypocalcemia appears in two different ways.

clinical calf disease First, with calf muscle disease, we see cows that can no longer stand due to reduced muscle performance. Sometimes we actually see cows walking less well or finding it difficult to get out of their cabins. The cow’s body temperature will drop and its heart rate will rise. We divide the clinical degree of calf disease into 3 stages. In the first stage, the cow was still standing, in the second stage it was lying down, but it was still alert. In the third stage, the cow is also lying down, but is not very responsive to stimuli or even in a coma.

Subclinical calf disease The second form is subclinical calf disease. This means that the condition goes unnoticed. However, it can still have a significant impact on health and therefore also the production of cow’s milk. Since calcium is important for smooth muscle functioning, the uterus contracts less forcefully and the chance of a successful delivery is lower. The digestive system will also be less active, resulting in less absorption and digestion of food. This will cause other problems, such as mucosal torsion and decreased milk production. Finally, the cows will lie more, which increases the likelihood of mastitis.

Diagnosis by symptoms or blood analysis

Diagnosis is made on the basis of clinical symptoms. The level of calcium in the blood may also be tested. This way we can be sure that it is a calcium deficiency, as the clinical signs of this can resemble nerve damage or a serious injury. coli bacteria– mastitis, in which the cow remains lying down. For the detection of subclinical calf disease, determination of serum calcium is the best method.

The older the cow, the more likely it is that it will have calcium deficiency. Calves, for example, will be able to adjust their calcium metabolism more quickly, while older cows will start to do so more slowly. In addition, a cow will produce less colostrum in its first feeding than the cow. Knowing that colostrum contains much more calcium than regular milk, this also explains the higher susceptibility to the condition in older cows compared to a cow.

Acting quickly is essential

Regarding treatment, it is important to know that calf disease is definitely an emergency. The longer the cow stays, the more damage it does to muscles, nerves, etc. The effectiveness of the treatment strongly depends on the length of time the cow has been in the lying position. In addition, a cow can go into a coma and may die due to calcium deficiency.

Treatment mainly consists of administering calcium and magnesium via an intravenous drip directly into the cow’s bloodstream. Furthermore, an anti-inflammatory/painkiller may also be given, especially if there is muscle damage. It goes without saying that cows still need unrestricted access to clean water and fresh feed. They cannot find this themselves at the forage fence, so this must be provided to the cow. Finally, it can be lifted straight up with a hip clamp, to stimulate blood flow through the muscles to prevent further damage. It is also important to change the cow regularly from the side on which it is lying.

good chance of success

After treatment intravenously with calcium, we see that the functioning of the muscles and the digestive system quickly return. Cows often stand on their own for some time after treatment and urinate or fatten. It is recommended to put the animals in hay or, weather permitting, put them outside in the soil. This ensures that the cow has plenty of grip when she makes another attempt to stand up.

If this is not possible, then the floats can also be attached to the hind legs, so that they have less tendency to stretch. When they try to stand on slippery ground, they are more likely to damage their muscles and bones by falling or making repeated attempts to stand.

Cow lift is used to raise cows straight. – Picture: whale

Cows in the third stage (unresponsive, comatose) usually take a little longer to get up unaided. However, we also see that these conditions often recur after treatment.

Prevention, especially through the dry period rations

The ration plays an important role in whether or not calf disease is prevented on your farm. For example, in the dry period rations, the calcium and potassium content should not be too high. If too much calcium is fed in the prenatal period, the metabolism that regulates calcium metabolism will be less or inactive. If there is a sudden increase in calcium demand, it will take some time before this metabolism returns again, with all the ensuing consequences. An excess of potassium will also ensure an imbalance of calcium.

Magnesium also plays a key role in calcium absorption. For example, magnesium ensures the activation of vitamin D, which, in turn, ensures a higher absorption of calcium from the intestines and bones. Magnesium must be constantly absorbed from feed, since cows do not have reserves of it. Dry period mineral supplements can certainly help here, as most roughages are fairly poor in magnesium.

Anionic salts can also be used in the serving. These salts ensure a reduced balance between positive and negatively charged ions in the diet and thus improve the performance of calcium metabolism. We must be careful about this, because these salts usually make the ration less appetizing for the cows.

Another good precaution is to give calcium boluses to newborn cows. This procedure will also address issues associated with subclinical calf disease. Recommended only when serving is ready. The bolus should be given within 2 hours of birth and again 12 hours later. If this is difficult for logistical reasons, the next day management is also good. It is important for cows to swallow well, so that the bolus certainly ends up in the esophagus.

Another good preventative measure against hypercalcemia is the administration of calcium boluses to newborn cows.
Another good preventative measure against hypercalcemia is the administration of calcium boluses to newborn cows. – Photo: AV


Calcium deficiency is still a common condition. First of all, it is important to adjust the ration of dry cows. If problems persist, you can treat with boluses. Clinical calf disease should be promptly treated with intravenous infusion therapy by your veterinarian.

Karel Schroen, University of Ghent

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