Milk Fever is caused by an imbalance occurring generally in the day or so after calving (sometimes before calving). When a cow goes from being dry (not milking) to lactating (milking), her body stimulates a drastic draw of calcium out of body for the purpose of lactation (secreting milk, high in calcium), particularly in high producing dairy cattle.
Click to watch our two part video on identifying and treating milk fever. Apologies in advance, we were borrowing the camera… but the commentary is informative and worth listening to in addition to what is written below.
Here’s another good 7 minute video about treating milk fever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UECnnkdq6o&feature=youtu.be
Milk fever may include an imbalance in other nutrients, which is why IV CMPK (for Calcium – Magnesium – Phosphorus – Potassium) sometimes works better than IV Calcium/Dextrose alone. *Some vets have the ability to test for blood levels of C-M-P and K to help assist in problem solving the issue. If initial treatment of Calcium helps the cow perk up, but she later goes back down or gets bad again, then it’s likely the issue is Calcium plus M, P, and/or K.
First time calving cows rarely get milk fever and the incidence of milk fever tends to increase with age as milk production tends to also increase with age. If cows are not “pushed” to produce a lot, age may not become much of a factor in likelihood of occurrence. Any high producing cow, particularly a cow that is producing a lot of milk in comparison to her overall body size, is at higher risk.
When identifying milk fever, carefully check the many symptoms of milk fever. For example, occasionally, a cow will be unable to rise after calving due to a pinched nerve. This will heal over time and requires different treatment than milk fever. Other possibilities of a cow “going down” around calving time are: selenium deficiency or various causes of toxemia. If a cow goes down a couple weeks after calving, check for symptoms of KETOSIS. If a cow goes down at calving but milk fever treatment is not working, check for symptoms of FATTY LIVER.
- constipation (because they may stop eating properly during calving process),
- unable to stand or walks drunkenly,
- cold ears and tailhead,
- dry nose,
- eyes sunken in,
- head curled in toward body tightly or laying flat in worst cases.
- Always keep on hand for emergencies:
- IV kit with new, sterile needles (kit comes with one, buy a few extra 14 or 16 gauge):
- At least one bottle each of IV solution for: CMPK (Rx), Calcium, and Dextrose
- Recommended: Bovikalc bolus or similar CMPK boluses, gel, etc.
- Limit feeding of alfalfa hay during dry period (30% of diet, approximately). Alfalfa is high in calcium and potassium, both of which are not needed much during the dry period and can cause milk fever issues at calving time. Reinstate about a week before calving and gradually work back up to full levels of alfalfa feed.
- Feed more mature hay of adequate quality OR find hay from a farmer that tests forage and buy a hay low in calcium and potassium that are still palatable. Feeding long-stemmed fiber is important.
- Maintain adequate nutrition throughout dry period. (See body condition charts and ask knowledgeable people to determine your cow’s condition. She should be between 3 and 4 on body score.) A cow too thin or too heavy is at increased risk.
- CMPK boluses or calcium propionate paste before calving at intervals as instructed on packaging. Note: Calcium paste and gels may be caustic!
- Doses of Vitamin D before calving.
- Feed a dry cow mineral rather than a lactating cow mineral. Limit phosphorus.
- The key to milk fever is to increase calcium supply in the blood system. Additional goal is to get her drinking, standing up, eating, and having bowel movements in order for her system to reset and improve.
- Always make sure the cow is at least laying upwards, with her shoulders up under her head. Prop her up with a bale of straw if you have to, but make sure she is upright.
- Cow will most likely be in a calving area, and should be on a bedded pack (layers of straw and shavings to the depth of 1 foot or more) that can still allow the cow to get goof footing for when she attempts to stand up.
- Prepare one bottle of CMPK or calcium gluconate and one bottle of Dextrose by warming them in a bucket of hot water. Administer slowly (10-20 minutes) one bottle of Calcium/CMPK in vein and then one bottle of Dextrose IV for added energy. (Many vets do not see the need for extra Dextrose, but in our experience, the extra energy is very helpful for cows to get well sooner.) CLICK HERE for GIVING AN IV
- Want to give it sub Q? If you are unable to or terrified to give an IV, Merck notes Sub Q is sometimes used. The Calcium should be given in small doses per injection location. (I can’t find the exact amount) Please read up on this further if you are concerned. “Recommended treatment is IV injection of a calcium gluconate salt, although SC and IP routes are also used.” Quoted from MERCK – Parturient Paresis
- Encourage cow to drink by bringing her a dish of lukewarm water.
- Allow the cow a few hours before determining if further treatment is necessary, but keep a close watch on the cow at regular intervals. A sick cow can deteriorate at a very quick rate!
- If you have to give three bottles over the first day and she is still not improving, give Equiphar and make sure they have 7-10 gallons of temperate water within reach. This should encourage her to drink some water on her own.
- DO NOT ever drench a cow unless absolutely necessary. Even the most experienced people should avoid this tactic, as it is easy to get the fluids into the cow’s lungs rather than her digestive system. We have heard of cows dying from drowning and it is heartbreaking to hear that it could have been prevented if they just had not drenched the cow. There are other ways to get a cow to drink on her own!!
- Continue to milk the cow on a normal schedule if possible. The concept of partial milking has less benefits than it does health risks and should not be done.
Should we really be afraid of milk fever??
Yes and No – Prevention goes a long way!
A 10 year old cow of ours calved one January on a frigid zero degree windy day. She’s prime candidate for milk fever in the classic reasoning: old lady, genetically made to give a lot of milk for a cow her size, several days overdue, we weren’t feeding her grain, and were feeding her a mainly alfalfa diet.
So with all that against her, what did we do in her favor?
Soaked beet pulp – Carbs and fiber help maintain a healthy rumen and prevent constipation or diarrhea. (Gradually add to diet before calving, so they like the taste and will eat a lot at calving time)
Tempered molasses water – Tempered so she doesn’t have to expend energy to warm up the water once in her body. Molasses is high in minerals and provides energy.
Feed variety and quality – We feed both alfalfa and grass hays, high in quality and coming in first, second, and third cuttings for variety of taste and texture (fine leaves vs. long stems: fines are high in protein and long stems promote good rumen function.) Some people limit the amount of alfalfa their cows get during the dry period. Yeast has been found to really boost metabolism in cows.
Cow was not fat – keeps cows from collecting fat on their organs, which is going to cause metabolic complications that may promote milk fever. Having dry cows on pasture is a easy way to promote a healthy weight in the right seasons.
Minerals and salt always available in loose form and free-choice. There are dry cow and lactating cow minerals available in some areas.
Exercise – Cows need to walk, not just in a small pen, but out and about so they can maintain muscle strength and condition.
Fresh air – Our barn is as open as possible without letting in cold air or moisture. This allows sunshine in on warm days to dry the barn and always air flow to avoid stagnation.
Minimal stress – Calving stall is in the same barn as where the cows live – friends nearby, similar smells, and familiarity.
Monitor manure so it’s not too constipated or too runny at calving time.
- VIDEO, Giving Calcium IV to a milk fever cow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7zMD0_wjq0
- Hoard’s Dairyman. “Fresh cow problems: How to control them.” http://www.agromedia.ca/ADM_Articles/content/freshcow.pdf
- K. Fred Gingrich II, D.V.M. “Why treatment protocols are so important.” http://www.hoards.com/E_animalhealth/aabp6
- New Mexico State University. “Controlling Milk Fever and Hypocalcemia in Dairy Cattle.” http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/research/dairy/TR31.pdf
- Nutritech Solutions Milk Fever Protocol: http://www.nutritechsolutions.com/assets/images/client/File/NutriCal/Suppl%20sheets/NTS%20fresh%20cow%20protocol.pdf
- Treatment Protocols, Wilson Dairy: http://wilsondairy.com/protocols.html#6
- Trouble-shooting milk fever and down cow problems: http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/nutrition/nutrition-and-feeding/nutrition-and-health/trouble-shooting-milk-fever-and-downer-cow-problems