Respiratory disease, joint ill, hernia surgery – these are all potential and expensive outcomes of umbilical, or navel, infections in dairy calves. The umbilical cord is the vital link providing nutrition to the fetus as it grows in the cow’s uterus. Once the calf is born, this now useless structure becomes a liability, as it provides an easy route for bacteria to enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body. When we think of navel care in dairy calves we often think of dipping navels after birth. Though this is an important step, we need to remember that good navel care does not stop there. Complete navel care has four steps. This article covers three: navel dipping, clean housing, and monitoring. The fourth step, adequate, timely colostrum consumption is covered in a separate article.
Navel dips serve two primary functions, disinfection of the umbilicus and promoting drying and healing of the umbilical cord. The classic navel dip product is 7% tincture of iodine. Though it is effective, current regulations make acquiring concentrated iodine difficult. Some may look to teat dips as an alternative because they have disinfectant properties similar to navel dips, but it is important to remember that teat dips are designed to keep the skin of the teat soft and supple, while navel dips are designed to dry out the umbilical tissue. These opposing goals make teat dips a poor choice for proper navel care. Several recent studies have identified several effective alternatives to iodine, including 2% chlorhexidine, as well as proprietary products specifically developed as navel dips. When choosing a product for your calves, ask your veterinarian or talk with an extension educator about which products have research to back up their claims.
Once you choose a product, you also need to make sure it is applied properly and in a timely manner. Dipping, rather than spraying, assures thorough coverage and can allow dip to get inside navel openings that spray cannot reach, but unlike a sprayer, a dirty dip cup can spread infections. An easy, inexpensive way to get around this is to use bathroom-sized disposable paper cups. Fill the cup with about 1 to 2 ounces of dip, get all the calf’s umbilical tissue into the cup, hold it against the calf’s belly, and give it a good shake. This will provide coverage all the way to the abdominal wall and when you are done, the cup can be discarded. All of this should happen as soon as the calf is breathing well after birth, or as soon as you find it. Though navel dip is important, this practice alone will not provide optimal navel health for your calves.
When trying to prevent disease, we want to maximize the ability of the calf to fight disease and minimize the amount of exposure to pathogens that the calf receives. Although navel dips do help to reduce the quantity of pathogens present that could cause navel infections, they only eliminate a portion of the bacteria present. That means that a calf housed in a dirty environment can still get a high level of exposure to pathogens even when navel dip is applied, risking navel infection and its complications. Clean, dry bedding both in the maternity area and the calf pen is a vital step in reducing the risk of navel infection in calves. There are multiple options for calf and maternity area bedding. Wood shavings can provide a good, clean base layer, but deeply bedded straw provides more insulation which is an added bonus as winter approaches.
Although a strong navel care program can reduce the likelihood your calves will get navel infections, it cannot prevent every infection. Monitoring calves to detect these infections early allows prompt treatment, preventing more severe outcomes. Often, calves with mild navel infections will appear quite normal from a distance so physical inspection of the navel is necessary. When inspecting a calf’s navel, check for three things: swelling, discharge, and pain. By one week of age, the calf’s navel should be about the size of your thumb. A bigger navel suggests the possibility of infection. Infected navels may also have a thick, white, or foul smelling discharge. Finally, infected navels are painful. If a calf tucks up its belly or kicks when the navel is touched or gently squeezed, it might be infected. Aim to check all calves twice by 10-14 days of age. Your veterinarian can show you how to examine a calf’s navel and can develop a treatment plan for when you find an infection. Though these are all important steps in complete navel care, but don’t forget colostrum is vital too.
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