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Every dairy producer knows that calcium deficiency during freshening can lead to Hypocalcaemia, which is better known as Milk Fever. 

Calving triggers the onset of milk production, which in turn drains the animal’s blood calcium levels faster than they can be replaced. This forces the animal to begin drawing calcium from its bones.  All of this results in the various ailments we associate with Milk Fever such as stiffening of joints, worsened muscle contractions, rumen motility, paralysis, and if left untreated, death. 

Milk Fever usually occurs within 72 hours of calving, and it is estimated that clinical cases affect 3-8% of all dairy cows, with some herds experiencing instances as high as 25-30% with older cattle and Jerseys being the most prone animals. Also, cow that have experienced Milk Fever during past lactations are more susceptible to it should be watched closely.

Cost of Milk Fever
One case of Milk Fever costs on average over $345 in treatmentt, loss milk production, and potential culling.  Once weakened by the fever, other ailments (retained placentas, metritis, mastitis, loss of appetite, displaced abomasums, and ketosis) often occur, effectively increasing the odds of losing the animal or the cost of recovery. 

Subclinical Milk Fever
Milk Fever is generally a rare occurrence, which is terrific, but precautions must still be considered since subclinical cases are extremely common and seldom diagnosed.  Subclinical Milk Fever affect the animal the same as clinical cases do, but to a lesser extent.  These ‘lesser’ cases can still cost producers hundreds of dollars as they may result in lost production, lower conception rates, and increased chances of mastitis. It is essential to prevent milk fever, clinical or not, whenever possible.

Milk Fever Prevention and Management
Preventing Milk Fever begins with the dry cow ration. In the past, many dairy producers have fed their dry cows whatever feed was most convenient or inexpensive; saving quality feed stuffs for the production animals. This way of thinking must be re-visited as research continues to show the importance of managing your dry cow program just as effectively as your milking herd. Improving your dry cow program can result in better conception rates, lower instances of mastitis, increased production, and generally healthier animals. 

Dry Cow Rationing. To do this you need a properly-balanced ration formulated with the help of your nutritionist, proper bedding and ventilation to maintain a high standard of cow comfort, and your time to check these animals regularly to catch any ailments they may get.  Proper rationing for dry milk cows nearly eliminates Milk Fever. This means balancing calcium and potassium levels, utilizing anionic salts or similar additives, and balancing all other feed traits such as chloride, sodium, sulfur, and phosphorus.  It is best to consult your nutritionist to find the best ration for your herd.

IV Treatments. Another method is to treat fresh cows with intravenous fluids such as Calcium Gluconate IVs; IVs work very quickly as they are administered directly into the blood stream where the low calcium levels originally caused the Milk Fever.  If an animal is ‘down’ and unresponsive, an IV is usually the only option available to get the animal back on its feet.  Either get trained properly in the administration of IVs, or have a licensed veterinarian do it for you. 

The limiting factor with IVs is that the calcium they get directly into the blood is at relatively low levels and does not stay with the animal long. Often, follow up treatments are required to fully heal the animal. 

Oral calcium supplements have come a long way in recent years and have been proven very effective at preventing Milk Fever if properly administered.  Calcium Chloride gels and drenches are the most common and effective forms of oral calcium treatment as they have the ability to bypass the rumen and get into the animals blood in around a half hour.  This is the fastest way of getting calcium into an animal short of an IV.  It is best to administer calcium chloride gel or drench to every animal immediately after calving and again the following day. If an IV is used it is still recommended to give oral calcium as a follow up to prevent relapses due to the IVs low level of residual calcium. 

Caution: Never administer oral supplements to a downed or paralyzed animal, or one that’s unable to swallow, as this may result in aspiration and possibly death. Wait until you witness the animal eating or drinking to administer oral supplements.  An actual drench applicator gun should be used to ensure the right amount of product is administered at the right speed, using pop bottles or other methods may result in harming or killing the animal.

Other Beneficial Calcium Supplements. Other supplements include calcium boluses, drinkable drenches, pumpable drenches (used via stomach or esophageal pump), and calcium powders. 

Each of these products should be scrutinized thoroughly before use as some are much more effective than others. Also, unless the product is calcium chloride drench or gel it will have to be processed by the rumen and will take between 6-8 hours before full utilization is achieved. These products are most beneficial if given the day before the animal calves as well as immediately after or used as a follow up to IV treatments.

Every farm should look at their needs, capabilities, and fresh cow programs to decide how best to handle Milk Fever on their herd.  But by using some of the above strategies you will be giving your herd and checkbook a serious advantage.

Shawn Parish

Shawn Parish has an Associate’s degree in Animal Science from Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, WI.  He grew up working on farms around Western Wisconsin.  Shawn was an Artificial Insemination Technician for Genex, CRI, and he has spent the last 7 years working in the dairy health/nutrition field.