Saturday, September 14, 2013

Milk Fever! All hands on Deck!!

When a cow goes down with milk fever it's considered a life threatening event. It is also a very humbling event for us since recently we were telling another farmer how we "never" see milk fever in our dairy cows since they are 100% grass fed.

Never, NEVER, say never.

Less that 24 hours later one of our best milk cows, Patra,  calved and then develop milk fever. So what is it? Milk fever occurs most often in larger breed, older cows who have had several calves. In simple terms (my personal favorite kind of term)  milk and colostrum which are "let down" in large amounts to the cows udder just after calving, drains calcium from the cows blood stream  putting them in a hypocalcemic state.  Some cows cannot replace this calcium quick enough on their own. Those who do not...



 Will have muscle tremors in head and limbs which will progress to staggering gait and often falling to the ground, usually in a sitting position, often with a "kink" in their neck. A dry muzzle, staring eyes, cold legs and ears, constipation and drowsiness are seen after going down. The heart beat becomes weaker and faster.

 The body temperature falls below normal, especially in cold, wet, windy weather. Sometimes there are additional signs due to complicating factors. Bloat is common in cows unable to "sit up" because the gas in the rumen is unable to escape. Pneumonia and exposure may affect cows left out in bad weather.if untreated they will become unresponsive, lying down completely on their side before circulatory collapse, coma and death.

Prevention is through feed types.  The feeding management of dry cows in the 2 weeks before calving is very important, because it affects both the amount of calcium available to replace blood calcium and the efficiency with which the available calcium can be used.

When the amount of calcium in the diet is greater than is needed, the efficiency of absorbing calcium from the intestine and the efficiency of transferring calcium from the skeleton both become very sluggish and the chance of milk fever is greatly increased.

Our big girl Patra went down quickly and needed to be treated with IV Calcium Gluconate. Given in the jugular vein of the cow in 500 cc bolus's cows often respond very quickly. Sometimes getting back on their feet within minutes. Which is what Patra did. She stayed up, ate more hay, drank well .In Fact when Keith  checked on her late  that rainy night  she was doing so well she made it all the way out to pasture with her girlfriends!

But the next morning she was down again. We blame her sweet calf who bellowed for her causing another huge let down of calcium rich milk. This time when she hit the floor she had made it back into the barn on the manure covered floor. Fortunately we had help that day.

Jim Hart, a graduate of The Farm Beginnings class in Bloomington was doing some "clinical" time with us. Since Petra's head had to be pulled to the side and restrained it was great to have an extra pair of hands to help while we accessed her neck vein (it's nice to feel like a nurse again) and gave more IV Calcium .

Keep in mind, the calcium has to be given slowly, over 20-30 minutes as any faster and Miss Bovine can suffer a heart attack. Since their are no IV pumps available for use in South Pork Ranch ICU we regulate the rate the old fashioned way by lowering and raising the bottle based on the placement of the IV needle in the vein.

Not long after this dose and after spreading limestone on the floor to help her with traction, she felt well enough soon after to get up on her own.

Now three days later, she's doing very well as is her wonderful heifer calf. And once again we have learned to Never say Never again.


  1. WOW! What's with all the bovine drama. I've heard and read of milk fever but it's crazy to see your story up close and personal.

    Your mama cow seems sweet and it's great to see this tale has a happy ending!

  2. Poor old gal. Farmin' ain't just mud-n-milkin', you have to be a medic as well.

    Good to know she's OK.

  3. Zan, yes indeed it can get nuts here but what is life without some spice?

  4. Cro. Between my husbands decades of farm experience and my own two cents from my nursing years, we make a good team. Mostly because he is a MUCH nicer person than I am !

  5. Scarey! I've been there. Many say don't IV a goat or you will kill her so it was frequent drenching instead. Luckily she didn't go completely down. Just way down on her pasterns and very weak before I figured it out. Every year after until her early death from cancer, we had to dose her with a bit more calcium at kidding time though not like the first treatment. My other experience was at a dairy when a cow went down from Milk Fever and it was all available hands needed to help. If I never have another case again in my life I will be thrilled. So glad your cow is doing well now.

    If you raise livestock you will constantly be dealing with new things. It keeps us humble. I'm having my first experience with dust pneumonia in my yak Gracie.

  6. Glad she's doing better. In my goat-readings, I've been fearing milk fever since my first kidding seven years ago. You guys make a great team!

  7. The bad side of having a dairy herd. Frustrating but you handled it well. Disaster avoided, now time for some Dairy levity. Two dairy farmers are sitting in a diner having coffee when one looks at the other and mumbles.."had a cow try to jump the barbed wire fence yesterday." "Was it bad?" asked the other. "Bad, it was "udder" destruction" deadpanned the first.

  8. oh, poor good mom! bless her (and you!) for being able to save her - twice!

  9. Thank you so much for posting this. Do you mind if I create a link to it on a blog post? I would love to do that for future reference for ourselves and also to potentially help my (few) readers. :)

    I'm an old nurse, too, but I also know I would never have the courage to do an IV into the jugular vein! I would call the vet! But at least I know what to watch for in future calves. I'm hoping that with Dexters not being such high milk producers, that milk fever would be something we're less likely to have, but I will NOT say NEVER! I did read up on what kind of feed and mineral salt to use before our girls calved this summer. But your post is a great tutorial on detecting it. Thank you!