Fatty Liver

A friend asked about our experiences with “fatty liver”, here is her question and our response:

Question: I’m curious about the fatty liver ketotic issues you’ve worked with. 
What circumstances do you believe led to their fatty liver? Any details – body condition, dry period length, dry period diet?


We haven’t had a lot of cases of fatty liver, but a few stand out in my mind. I have heard fatty liver can happen to cows that aren’t fat, but that’s not ever been the case for us (my husband feeds cows too much, they’re always leaning toward the fat side…)

One I remember very well was a prominent cow in the herd that was being flushed regularly. So she was way late in getting bred back. She was dry a long time and we kept her in a box stall in the heifer barn where she was fed coarse crummy hay. But, still she got pig fat. So common in flush cows…. She really hit rock bottom when she calved.

Another cow, my first show cow, was sent to a farm when we lived back east and I don’t remember the circumstances, but she was dried off and dry for longer than normal, so she got sent to live with heifers in this mega-plush field and she came back pig fat, too. She was younger, so recovered a bit faster than the first cow.

So, I asked my husband and here’s what he remembers:

B12 in the Dextrose for liver support, daily.
Dextrose, two bottles the first day, separated by time, then one bottle a day after that, IV.
Calcium, IV, may be given to help support her general system, since this is going to happen right after she calves (but my husband said to be careful and monitor temp to make sure she doesn’t spike a fever. Don’t give calcium if she’s over 103F.)
Pre-def is what he always used, it works differently than regular dexamethasone, given daily up to 3-4 days, at least 10cc for the first 3 days. It doesn’t “suck them dry” like Dex. does, it’s not harsh like that (these are his words – lol) (Not IV, it’s given IM) www.zoetisus.com/products/beef/predef-2x.aspx
Once the cow is up, she’ll be weak, but once up the vet would pump the cows with rumen stimulants such as electrolytes, yeast, bacteria, minerals, etc. (He thinks maybe mineral oil was added, to help prevent constipation. They’d pump a LOT of warm solution, like 10 gallons. Next time I see the vet, I can ask him specifically, maybe he’ll give me his recipe. :) )
We always try to keep around some of the most delectable hay, in case of emergencies like this. For example, we have a tender, second cutting alfalfa x orchardgrass mix that is just candy. This is what we’d feed the cow during recovery. Fermented feeds (not corn, but grass, etc.) would be a great option, too. Also, having something “new” as a feed – so maybe run to the feed store or head to the neighbor dairy’s and borrow some grass silage or a different type of hay – anything to stimulate the cow’s appetite.
Goal is to see her start cudding. Use ketone strips to monitor urine, that’ll help you determine how much Dextrose to give.
Cow will be in a box stall. But, once she’s up, it’s nice to let her out in the yard – on her own – to exercise. He also found that the cow would often wander and find things she needed – like bark, etc. to chew on. (The pumped fluids would have minerals, you could always offer a free choice pan of minerals to the cow as well.)

Question: And how did you diagnose their fatty liver ketosis?

It seems like it can be diagnosed afterwards in a post mortem (that’s why I know that a normally conditioned animal can have lots of internal fat…) but was wondering what you look for and what your treatment protocol is.

Answer: It’s kind of just something you look for or know when it’s happening. It’s like the worst ketosis that doesn’t go away. My husband said you could almost just call it “tired cow liver” because it’s pretty much found in high producing cows. This theory correlates with why my Rosebud (who got horribly fat one year and looked like a bull across the shoulders! :/) – who should have gotten fatty liver and all it’s problems, didn’t…. She’s a lower producing Jersey, I think the most she’s ever given is 6 gal/day at peak. So, her body is able to gradually build up in milk production, allowing her body time to adapt and “restart” the liver slowly.

Also when cows are being fed high energy feeds (particularly stressful for Jerseys, who really don’t need as much energy as larger dairy animals such as Holsteins). TMR diets, etc. can accelerate the issue.

In our experience, fatty liver tends to follow long times between calvings. Not necessarily just the dry period, but the overall time between calvings. Her normal bodily functions get stagnant, then combine that with high producing, and there you see the problem. Usually when you have a long time between calvings, you will see external fat, that paunchy hard fat. But that’s just been our experience. Perhaps when it’s seen in skinny cows, you’re seeing similar issues – perhaps long lactation/dry period and a stagnant system, but with poorer management throughout and/or disease pressure that prevents external body condition but can still cause some organ damage. (And is that fat on the liver or just stressed/damaged liver in the case of the skinny cow, I’m not sure. There’s probably studies out there about that.)

Added note: This is why my husband is such an advocate for regular calvings. I know that’s not always possible, we’ve had some extended lactations or dry periods with our older cows. But, regular calvings are important for a reason and therefore should be considered. Also, being aware of genetics in milk production and trying to build a herd that matches your goal – that’s so important.