In the battle to help cows triumph over fresh-cow health problems, a handful of Michigan dairy producers have armed themselves with calcium gel tubes. Each cow receives one calcium gel tube after calving regardless of whether she shows signs of milk fever. For $9 per gel tube, the producers have fewer cases of clinical milk fever and hypocalcemia - often referred to as subclinical milk fever on farm. The reduction in these disorders also decreased the incidence of displaced abomasum, retained placenta, ketosis, metritis and other common fresh-cow health problems.

When it comes to fighting disorders in your cows, there's no better time to be "on offense" than during the transition period. Taking action during this time can better prepare your cows for freshening and help them avoid some of the metabolic disorders, reproductive problems and digestive upsets that often occur after calving. This is critical because one ailment in a just-fresh cow can cascade into other disorders and a lactation full of problems.

Disorders occur together
Just as people can suffer "complications" from an illness, so can your cows. A landmark study reported in the 1985 Journal of Dairy Science analyzed the patterns of disease that occurred among 31 New York dairies to see what risk factors were present. Among the findings:

  • Cows stricken with clinical milk fever were 23.6 times more likely to have ketosis, 7.2 times more likely to have dystocia problems that required the help of a veterinarian, 4 times more likely to retain fetal membranes, and 5.4 times more likely to have clinical mastitis.

  • Cows having retained placentas were 16.4 times more likely to have complicated ketosis. Similarly, the occurrence of a left displaced abomasum increased the likelihood of ketosis by 53.5 percent.

  • Cows calving with dystocia and requiring veterinary assistance were 4.9 times more likely to contract metritis. Cows with retained fetal membranes were 5.7 times more likely to develop metritis. And, cows with a left displaced abomasum were 3.6 times more likely develop metritis.

    Assessing subclinical disorders
    Until recently, most research has focused on clinical milk fever and its link to these common fresh-cow problems. However, on-farm experience has shown that hypocalcemia carries a similar link to these diseases and occurs in more cows - often up to 50 percent to 60 percent of the herd. With that many cows affected, the impact of hypocalcemia can easily surpass the impact of clinical milk fever on the herd.

    When producers wait for these clinical signs of disease to occur, and then take action, the losses already have occurred, stresses Carlos Risco, veterinarian at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. Instead, producers should take steps to correct diet and change management strategies in order to reduce the incidence of subclinical diseases, thus averting other fresh cow health problems.

    Worth the cost
    When it comes to watching the bottom line, some producers contend that treating and preventing subclinical problems isn't worth their time. However, when you take into account the cost of the problems, lost milk production, lower peak milk production, and delays in breeding, it's difficult to deny the advantages of a nutrition and management program to minimize fresh-cow health problems, says Jesse Goff, veterinarian at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa. On average, he says, prevention yields about a 3-to-1 return.

    Research conducted by Dave Beede, dairy nutritionist at Michigan State University, found that cows fed diets containing anionic salts to prevent milk fever and other health problems produced, on average, 700 pounds more per lactation than cows which did not receive anionic salts. With a milk price of $12 per hundredweight, that's an extra $84 per cow - more than enough to cover the cost of the anion supplementation. And, that return doesn't include any savings from avoiding other metabolic disorders, Beede notes.

    It's time to take a closer look at the health of your fresh cows. You may be missing an opportunity to improve cow health, milk production and reproduction.