It’s commonplace on some farms to give a fresh cow a bottle of calcium just after calving. For many, this is considered cheap insurance to prevent clinical hypocalcemia (or milk fever). On other operations, calcium is rarely administered unless there is a clinical milk fever.

Which is the best approach? It depends on the dairy and recent history of fresh cow disorders. 

If there has been a problem with milk fever, and there are some management and nutritional issues that are difficult to address, this preventative bottle of calcium may be a good idea. In other situations, it may be a band-aid that covers underlying nutritional issues.

Seek transparency

I’ll use one of my regular herds as an example. This dairy’s annual milk fever incidence is less than 2 percent, and dairy personnel do not routinely administer calcium at calving. When more than one milk fever case occurs in a few days, we know immediately that something has probably changed in the ration or management. 

If this dairy were to administer a bottle of calcium to each cow at calving, we would likely not find this problem as quickly (or maybe not at all). Think of subclinical milk fever as you do other subclinical diseases. If you did something to cover up clinical mastitis, but still had subclinical mastitis, would this be a good thing?  Of course not. Covering up clinical milk fever isn’t acceptable either.

Cow health consequences

Low calcium has multiple effects beyond the initial clinical event of the fresh cow being weak or down. In addition to the role of calcium in muscle function, proper immune function depends on normal calcium balance. 

That bottle of calcium may get the cow through the initial period right after calving, but what about the prolonged effect of subclinical milk fever on metritis, mastitis and other diseases?

Another reason that I often hear in defense of the fresh cow bottle is that it gets the fresh-cow crew to take the time to look at the cow. This may be a valid reason.

Remember, however, “First do no harm.” Can you implement another procedure to examine the fresh cow for problems without giving a bottle?

Other events on the dairy, like routinely taking the temperature of fresh cows, could be in place to stop, look and listen for cows in need. 

Procedural stagnation

Procedures or programs are often implemented and left in place for a long time. Adding a new vaccination for an outbreak of a disease, routine use of preventative antibiotics in calves, and feed additives are some of the most common areas. The bottle of calcium may be the same.

Now is the time to review your standard operating procedures, treatment protocols and vaccination program to see if there are things that can be eliminated. The thought of removing a vaccine or procedure may scare you, but ask if you still need these things for a problem you were dealing with years ago under different management situations.

Obviously, discuss these modifications with your herd veterinarian, nutritionist and other advisors. This may be a good opportunity to trim down both unnecessary tasks and expenses.

Tips to follow

If you continue to give that bottle, keep these tips in mind:

  • First-lactation animals rarely experience milk fever; spare them the bottle.
  • Review proper administration technique to prevent harm.
  • Keep the dextrose on the shelf. Most fresh cows have high blood glucose, and dextrose may cause the cow to excrete more phosphorous, leading to low blood phosphorous and a down cow.
  • Regular forage analyses and rebalancing of the ration are essential.

Listen to your cows. In most cases, when there is a problem, they are telling us about it. We just need to find out how to fix it.

Mark J. Thomas is a veterinarian and partner in Countryside Veterinary Clinic, LLP in Lowville, N.Y.