Last weekend I travelled upcountry to visit my folks. It happened that “Esther” one of our dairy cows was about to give birth. We kept vigil to keep Esther company and offer assistance in case she needed help. In the wee hours of Friday, she dropped twin female calves with ease. My mother ululated. Being the third lactation, Esther has been giving birth to bulls but this time she decided to surprise us. However, there was a twist, she lost appetite, was weak, unable to stand and was shuffling the hind feet after birth.
My folks were worried when I told them she had milk fever. I assured them it shall be well. Fortunately, they had sent yours truly to the University to study Veterinary Medicine. This was my time to show the worth of the fees they paid.
What is milk fever?
Milk fever is a complex metabolic disease mainly of dairy cows before, during or after calving. This condition is caused by a low blood calcium level (hypocalcaemia).
High producers, like Esther whose production was averaging 28 litres daily on her previous lactation, are more susceptible because the fall in their blood calcium level is greater. However, this condition is not contagious.
What are the signs of milk fever?
When you closely observe your cow around the calving period you may be able to catch some signs that point to milk fever. Signs observed during this stage include loss of appetite, weakness, weight shifting, excitability, nervousness, hypersensitivity, and shuffling of the hind feet.
The first symptom is an unsteady gait. You may notice this during the day. Soon after the cow lies down, and if you feel her ears and feet, they will be cold.
If the cow is on her feet, early symptoms include paddling with the hind feet and swaying as if she is about to fall over. Once down, she will twist her head and neck to the side as if there were a kink in her neck. Her nose becomes dry.
A dry muzzle, staring eyes, cold legs and ears, constipation and drowsiness are seen after going down. The heartbeat becomes weaker and faster. These signs are due mainly to lowered blood calcium levels.
What is the treatment of milk fever?
Once you suspect milk fever, call your veterinarian immediately and tell them about the signs you have observed. This should be addressed as an emergency
The veterinarian should administer a calcium product as soon as is possible intravenously and some volume by subcutaneous injection. Ensure the solution is warmed to body temperature in cold weather. These sites should be massaged to disperse the solution. Cows respond to this treatment by belching, snapping and opening her eyelids, breathing deeply, passing dung and sitting up.
Upon giving the calcium injection to Esther, she slowly stood up and passed dung. My folks were elated, and ululations ran in the air.
The legs should also be massaged if she has been lying down for long. Also protect her from exposed weather conditions such as rain, sun and wind by placing her in a shaded area that is dry.
How to prevent milk fever?
Do not breed from cows with a history of recurrent milk fever. Prevent animals from becoming over fat. Make sure that the diet is sufficient in magnesium for cows in late pregnancy. Avoid stress in cows. Feed adequate fibre to transition cows. Ensure that the calcium intake during the dry period is below 50 grams per day. Ensure that adequate dietary calcium is available over the risk period especially prior to and after calving.
Moreover, supplementation of vitamin D 3 to 8 days before calving has also proven to be helpful.
Milk fever increases the risk of other metabolic diseases and infections, such as ketosis and metritis, and approximately 5 per cent of downer cows do not recover.
(The writer is a Veterinary Surgeon and the Resident Vet at FarmKenya)