Ketosis is one of the most widely known and common metabolic disorders affecting dairy cattle.  The most recent statistics available state that Ketosis results in a 1% death loss, 5% of animals being culled, and will cost on average $145 per instance in lost productivity and treatment expenses.  In my opinion, these numbers are conservatively low, as they would be hard-pressed to include subclinical cases and the fact that Ketosis often leads to other health issues down the road.  Either way, it is clear that we must do all we can to identify and prevent this problem.

One definition of ketosis is as follows (feel free to skim):

Bovine ketosis requires the combination of intense adipose mobilization and a high glucose demand. Both of these conditions are present in early lactation, at which time negative energy balance leads to adipose mobilization and milk synthesis creates a high glucose demand. Adipose mobilization is accompanied by high blood serum concentrations of nonesterified fatty acids (NEFA). During periods of intense gluconeogenesis, a large portion of serum NEFA is directed to ketone body synthesis in the liver. Thus, the clinicopathologic characterization of ketosis includes high serum concentrations of NEFA and ketone bodies and low concentrations of glucose. In contrast to many other species, cattle with hyperketonemia do not have concurrent acidemia. The serum ketone bodies are acetone, acetoacetate, and β-hydroxybutyrate (BHB).

Did you get all that?? I made it through the second sentence.  While it is good to have such detailed articles explaining the unexplainable, I also like to have the ‘to the point’ lesson.  The best explanation of Ketosis I ever heard is as follows.  “During freshening, a cow goes through a great deal of stress and uses an extreme amount of energy.  Then milk production kicks into gear, resulting in more energy requirements.  If the animal is unable to consume and utilize enough energy to meet these demands, she is experiencing a negative energy balance and will come down with ketosis.”  If you like analogies, think of it this way: you burn 3 face cord of wood a week and only cut 1 a week to replace it, what’s going to happen??  A cold winter!!  That is why we cut and stack wood to last not days but seasons. The same concept can be used in preventing animal health problems such as Ketosis; increase your animals’ feed intakes and energy levels prior to calving to prevent a big fall.

A well balanced dry cow ration is the first step to lowering your herd’s ketosis instances, and you should work with your nutritionist to find the best mix.  The average animal begins dropping in DMI (dry matter intake) a week prior to calving.  The day of freshening she is down around 9lbs of feed and must work her DMI up to lactation levels as quickly as possible.  This generally takes 6 weeks and is the most crucial time for the animal.  Until her energy intakes match or exceed her energy demands, the animal is experiencing some level of Ketosis.  So other than a good feeding program what can we do to promote positive appetite and energy??

Probiotics have been shown to promote a positive appetite in animals during times of stress.  Feeding probiotics to cattle 2 weeks prior to freshening can help maintain DMI’s through this phase resulting in a better energy balance.  Many herds I have worked with using probiotics in this way claim to have better DMI’s at freshening resulting in less cases of ketosis.  Keeping animals on probiotics for 2 weeks after freshening has also shown positive benefits.  If daily feed additives are not for you, then consider using a concentrated probiotic gel, capsule, or bolus immediately after freshening.  This concentrate of good bacteria can help stimulate the gut and perk the animal’s appetite within a few hours.

There are also products available which address the low blood glucose levels directly.  One of the first things to come to mind is a dextrose IV.  IV’s work very quickly and in severe cases may be your only option to save the animal.  Then there are oral energy supplements which can be used preventatively or as a follow up to an IV.  These products often revolve around propylene glycol, a glucose precursor that will raise the animal’s blood sugar levels within a few hours.  Another ingredient that a good energy supplement should contain is niacin, which has the ability to increase blood glucose levels while decreasing ketones in the system.  For the best results, these products should be given the day before freshening and again immediately afterward.  Further doses may be needed, depending on the condition of the animal and product being used.  Niacin is also commonly used as a feed additive and may be something to ask your nutritionist about if you’re experiencing heavy ketosis issues.

Regardless if your herd experiences a high frequency of clinical Ketosis cases or if you just want to lower the amount of subclinical animals in your herd, good management practices and utilizing the right supplements can keep your animals healthy and productive.