Increased calf mortality and illness is blamed on a variety of things: fluctuating weather patterns, an increased number of calvings per day or even transitioning of employees from one task to another. Oftentimes the real cause is the easiest one to fix.
“A common area that is overlooked on many operations is a calf’s navel or umbilicus,” says Bethany Fisher, calf and heifer specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition LLC. “This simple thing that triggered the first breath could easily be the source of the last.” Proper disinfection of the navel can reduce the risk of many ailments in calves.
The umbilicus of the calf is made up of a tube leading to the bladder, two arteries and a vein that connects to the liver and thus the bloodstream. “Once the umbilicus of the calf is detached from the placental membrane the calf begins to breathe and the umbilical cord is open to a plethora of bacteria in the environment of the calving area. This means that every minute the calf’s navel goes without dipping the likelihood of illness in the coming hours or days increases,” she explains. Studies show that calves with non-dipped navels had an 18 percent death rate, compared to 7 percent for calves with dipped navels.
There are many outlets for exposure of bacteria to a calf’s navel, including: calving area, tools or equipment and other calves. “These outlets for exposure show just how easily and quickly navel contamination can occur,” says Fisher.
To protect the calf, Fisher suggests that dipping the navel should be the first and last thing done when processing new calves. “Dipping the navel of a wet calf has its benefits but once the calf has had time to dry re-dip as an extra precaution,” she says.
To effectively dip the navel, Fisher offers the following tips:
· Use 7 percent tincture iodine designed for navels. Teat dips contain substances that slow the drying process of the navel down and thereby reduce the effectiveness of dipping. The drying of the navel makes the healing process much quicker.
· Make sure to achieve full coverage from tip to abdomen. A navel dip cup is good to use to ensure full coverage of the navel, but be sure dip cups are also cleaned and refilled with new iodine regularly. Spraying the navel is also acceptable, if full coverage is achieved.
· If clipping the navel, be sure equipment used is clean and sanitized. Be advised that clipping the navel too short can expose the opening in the body cavity, making it more readily available to organisms.
Another key part of monitoring your navel dipping protocols is detecting navel infections and illness. Fisher explains the most common signs include swollen, hard, wet or pain in the navel region. If left untreated or severe enough the body wall does not fully close and the infection will present as a hernia: a bulging mass on the abdomen.
Remember the next time you see the miracle of birth, that the simple thing that triggered the first breath could easily be the source of the last.
 S. Leadley, Attica Veterinary Associates and P. Sojda, Offhaus Farms, Calving Ease – Navels & Newborns, May 2004