Milk fever, also called hypocalcaemia, occurs primarily in dairy cows, but it can occur in any kind of cow or other mammals around calving or birthing. It’s the result of the milk draining too much calcium out of the cow’s blood, causing the muscles to stop working properly. Most often you won’t know it’s a danger until you find the cow already down. Knowing how to prevent it and what to do if it occurs is vital information for any farmer.
Milk fever is a readily treatable condition, but it’s important to seek help quickly. Without proper treatment, milk fever can lead to death. Essentially, when the cow is close to calving, the body draws excess calcium from the blood in order to produce more milk. When too much calcium is taken, it causes the cow’s muscles to stop functioning properly. This leads to the most common sign of milk fever: a downed cow.
Often the cow is either close to calving or has calved in the past day. When a cow is found down, do what you can for them. Protect them from the elements as best you can and observe them to see if you can make a solid determination of milk fever.
The signs you’ll need to look for will be subtle, because going down close to calving time is the main one. If you can catch it early, you can minimize the risk to the cow and future calves. At first, the cow will seem “off.” She’s likely to be easily spooked or excitable. This stage only lasts for about an hour, so it’s easy to miss. It’s important to trust your intuition and to know your animals.
The second stage is more easily observed, as the cow will become increasingly distressed. She may continually turn her head toward her flank and develop an unsteady gait. Constipation and a low temperature are also common. Most cows have a healthy temperature around 101.5 degrees, but a cow with milk fever will have a temperature between 96-100 degrees. She will likely also seem weak and lethargic and have a cold nose and ears.
The third stage is when you need to act quickly. This is when the cow goes down, and the heart rate becomes fast and weak. Without fast treatment, the cow may become comatose and can die.
Know which cows are the most at risk. Carefully regulate the diet of dry cows for approximately two weeks before calving. Once the cow has calved, it needs to have adequate calcium intake during milk production. This equates to two to three times as much calcium per day — or 20-30 grams — compared to what is needed during fetal development.
Monitoring the cow’s intake shortly before and especially directly after calving is the best way to prevent milk fever. It’s important to note that you also don’t want to overdo the calcium intake. If a dry cow is conditioned to too much calcium, her body will down-regulate the absorption of the mineral. When more is suddenly needed after calving, the cow’s body may be unable to switch gears quickly enough to prevent milk fever. Keeping the calcium intake at the proper levels will prevent sudden adjustment from occurring and keep your cows healthy.
If you find a downed cow, the first thing to do is always call the vet. If milk fever is suspected and you’ve been trained by a vet before, you may be able to administer a calcium supplement directly on your own. You should still call a vet, though, because it’s always best to seek a professional’s opinion.
Typically, 300-600 mL of a 40-percent calcium solution should be enough to treat milk fever. If you’ve been properly trained by a vet, keep a pack of solution on hand with an injection kit. If you have not been trained on how to treat milk fever, consider asking your vet to teach you. It’s especially important if you don’t have a vet close by.
Your vet may recommend a combined solution, such as 3-in-1 or 4-in-1, which contains other minerals that are commonly depleted during milk production. If the cow is down, try to prop them up into a normal resting position to help relieve bloat as well. Your vet can train you on injections, but it’s important not to try injecting into a vein on your own, at any time. Any mistakes can cause the cow to bleed out.
Knowing the causes of milk fever and closely monitoring diet can prevent the majority of milk fever cases. If it happens, knowing the signs and acting quickly are vital to the livelihood of the animal. Make sure you’re well versed on what to do, and talk to your vet about administering injections. You never know when it might be needed.
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