Swelling is a normal part of calving in cows of all ages.
Heifers will begin to “bloom” up to a few months in advance of their first calving (mostly in the last month). Their tiny udder will slowly grow larger and may some days take on an odd shape as the fluids squish around from place to place. Remember, all this skin is stretching out for the first time!
Cows are more likely to get mild to moderate edema closer to calving (2 weeks or less) and tend to recover more quickly than first time calvers.
Notice on the cow in the picture, under her belly is loose and full of liquid. This is the fluid retention settling from gravity into a low spot. More common in first-time calvers than in older cows. It will go away on its own over a few week period.
The edema will move around like putty depending on how the cow lays. If she is always laying on one side, then the swelling will get pushed all to one side also. Or maybe she switches back and forth, then one day she might have a huge right rear quarter and the next day a huge left rear quarter. It’s not mastitis, it’s just all that mess floating around.
I you are concerned that the swelling is putting too much pressure on the crease (udder cleft), then you can rub lotion into the crease. Put your arm between her back legs and rub the cream along the seam all the way up to the top of her rear udder. Work in the cream and rub from the bottom of the udder up to the very top of the udder and repeat in an upward motion to help move the fluid out of the udder. This works best if done after milking the cow and for up to 10-20 minutes. (http://www.agromedia.ca/ADM_Articles/content/freshcow.pdf)
A good lotion to use is one that contains Tea Tree Oil and Peppermint Essential Oils (EO). The brand name Udder Comfort, Udder Mint etc. is very expensive. If you feel comfortable making your own lotion, you can purchase the essential oils fairly inexpensively online and add them to a base.
My base lotion is:
- 2/3 shea butter
- 1/3 olive oil
- A few drops each Peppermint and Tea Tree Oil
You can experiment with lotions from what you have on hand (or purchase along with the EO’s). I liked the thicker cream for winter time, which can get very cold (chapped teats!).
When milking, massage each area of the udder to attempt complete milkout. (You may not get a complete milk-out for the first few milkings, and even then, will not get a super soft collapsed udder when empty – this takes time: weeks!
Watch for sores on the inside of the leg where the filled out udder can rub on the inside of the leg and cause sores. If sores are detected, try to keep the area clean but also use some ointment or baby powder to keep the friction down so the leg can move smoothly without causing more sores. ** Be careful, if the udder has cracked skin or sores, the peppermint lotion may cause additional irritation, so plain oils should be used for sensitive skin**
Limit intake of salt, sodium bicarbonate, and potassium to help limit edema.
Allow for moderate exercise for the cow. An active cow will heal more quickly than a stationary cow. Do limit activities that may harm the suspensory ligaments (ie. Do not let the cow run out to pasture).
Every cow gets edema at calving time, and almost every cow will lose all of the edema within the period of one month or so. General care is adequate in treating edema unless milking time and cow health is seriously hindered by edema that is severe.
For serious, detrimental edema (rare):
- Once fresh, if edema is severe, a quick way to reduce it is to milk the cow 3x a day for a week or more.
- We do not recommend pre-milking a cow before she calves. Occasionally though, the cow will be dripping streams of milk or have an enormous udder, so pre-milking may be necessary in that case. (If pre-milking, be sure to save and freeze enough colostrum for the calf when it is born!)
- Oxytocin may be used to improve let-down, but should only be used on a rare occasion to prevent risk of dependency.
- Dexamethasone can be prescribed by a vet if the edema is outrageously bad.
- A cow with a slipped median suspensory ligament will hold in permanent edema, which does not go away no matter what you try. (More like scar tissue & inability to milk out completely, so fluid retention, at this point, but just to look at her, looks a lot like calving edema) Try to avoid buying a cow with a weak or slipped ligament. (Flat between the rear teats, where there is not much crease.) If your cow does have a weak ligament, it’s not the end of the world, but long-term protection of the udder from further damage is important.
- TMR, a “hot” diet can cause excess swelling in the udder (as well as in other parts of the body such as the joints), even well after calving. Avoid feeding a diet too high in energy (too much grain or silage) at any point in a cow’s life.