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T O P I C    R E V I E W
maryjane Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 07:02:17 AM
2018 and 2019 saw quite a few of us experience milk fever in our beloved cows; many of us for the first time (I’ve been spared for dozens of years, only to have two girls go down in the past two years). When my girl M’lady (re-homed March 2018 to Montana) died from milk-fever complications recently, I went looking for answers again and ended up consulting with Dr. Barrington, one of my favorite WSU veterinarians. I was hoping to get information on the latest in the world of milk fever research, forever ongoing, because of the shock, grief, and loss it can cause.

M’lady went down soon after after giving birth. Eight hours passed before she was discovered down and given an IV of calcium and because of that, she died from what is called “secondary down” (body condition problems related to laying in one position for too long). Once she got calcium, she stood up but was unable to put weight on one of her back legs (hoof curled backwards), so she went down and stayed down. They made a four-hour emergency run for a hoist and started lifting her regularly and massaging her limbs. They administered more calcium gel. Diarrhea set in. When it looked like none of what they were trying was working, I helped them with arrangements to drive her 4 hours to WSU to Dr. Barrington. First, he said, to prep her for the long trip, create a 12-inch deep bed of straw (to give her limbs as much relief from pressure as possible) and then pack bales around her so she can’t roll over onto her side, and then get the vet out again before loading her in the trailer to administer 500 ml calcium (boro)gluconate, subcutaneously, behind or in front of the shoulder blade (lateral thorax), but their local vet didn’t have any and wasn’t up for coming out again.

Because it was the first time I’d heard of “secondary down,” Dr. Barrington also said, “I will try everything I can to save her, but a second down cow is hard to save. When I worked at UC Davis, we had large float tanks and so had pretty good luck getting secondary down cows back up again, but I don’t have a float tank here.” As M’lady was being prepped for her trip to WSU, she stopped breathing and evacuated her bowels.

The administration of calcium SQ piqued my interest because that’s something I could do if need be. I don’t have much luck getting a large capsule down my girls (one of my cows let me; the other one nearly broke my neck tossing her head around). And an IV is out of my league. The last time I tried to get an entire caulking gun full of gel down a girl, she gagged repeatedly until she went down on her knees in my stanchion (I had a vet helping me; it was many years ago), and then I faced the panicked possibility of a cow about to break her neck. I recently tried a pre-mixed liquid calcium, but my cow panicked and inhaled some of it and then came down with pneumonia (actually, a form of bronchitis because the fluid never made it to her lungs, fortunately, and she was 100% well again after a round of antibiotics). Which brings up another point Dr. Barrington has mentioned to me before--the caustic nature of calcium chloride. Calcium chloride seems to be the choice for over-the-counter calcium remedies which is why WSU uses or recommends oral calcium propionate that you mix yourself. You’ve probably seen calcium propionate on human food labels (
It’s a commonly used food additive. But for cows, it can save a life if you mix one pound (easily purchased on the internet) with enough water to dissolve it and then administer it orally (if you can). I know we’ve all become pretty imaginative over time with how to get calcium down our girls. Janet couldn’t get calcium gel down Nellie, so she rubbed the gel on the calf and momma ended up licking some of it off. Dr. Barrington said a wine bottle completely wrapped in duct tape will work in a pinch. I would prefer trying my 400 ml drench syringe. I did administer calcium propionate to Miss Daisy after she went down because I had to put a trocar in her side to save her from bloat (when low on calcium, a cow can also bloat easily due to lack of rumen contractions due to lack of calcium being delivered to stomach muscles). A trocar has to stay in for a couple of weeks afterward, so I easily syringed/poured some calcium propionate (mixed with water) directly into her rumen. Calcium propionate is a more slow-acting calcium. Calcium (boro) gluconate is more fast-acting.

Before I did a follow-up call with Dr. Barrington (he was kind enough to call me back and leave a message with his condolences when he found out M’lady wouldn’t be showing up), I researched calcium (boro)gluconate. I found what I was looking for at Valley Vet, premixed in a 23% solution with sterile water in a needle-ready container.

Now all I needed to find was at least a 200 ml luer-lock syringe (I found a pack of two on Amazon but it took a while to get here). 14-gauge needles are recommended by the calcium glyconate manufacturer (AgriLabs) but I have 16-gauge in both 1 inch and 1 ½ inch and I’m pretty sure they’ll dispense fast enough (16 are slightly smaller than 14).

I put in a phone call to Dr. Barrington to run my idea by him to administer calcium (boro)gluconate SQ as milk fever prevention right before calving and soon afterward, twice if need be. He said it would work but he likes the idea of oral calcium propionate better (if you can get it down your cow).

The next part of our discussion turned me upside down. I’ve always thought I needed to get my cows milked out soon after calving because of the immense pressure (an udder that looks like it’s about to pop), not to mention teats that are dripping milk, making them susceptible to mastitis because the milk canal is open to environmental bacteria. Also, I’ve always thought and been told that if you don’t start milking them right away, you’ll lose productivity. This conversation has come up often with vets and dairymen whenever they’ve commented on my once-a-day milking, “Hard on a cow not to be milked twice a day,” they’ve always said.

Well, now they’re re-thinking that. Dr. Barrington said they’re having good luck taking less milk for that first week after birth until everything settles down, including their udder’s demand for calcium and their body’s ability to get it from food. Large dairies feed their cows a monitored and complicated DCAD diet (dietary cation-anion difference) before and after parturition.

Here’s how he explained taking less milk, paraphrased of course. “Modern-day cow udders are over-sized. They have been bred to produce more milk than a calf needs in order to supply us. When they fill their udder that first few times after giving birth, 20 grams of calcium goes into their udder, every time it fills. There isn’t 20 grams calcium total in their body that is available, so all kinds of fascinating, complicated things have to happen, with precision and without fail, every single udder fill. One hick-up and they’re down. Their kidneys have to stop putting out as much calcium. Their bones have to start giving up calcium. Their guts have to operate on less than is usually needed for rumen contractions. On and on. What we do know is back pressure (an udder that is still partially full) works like a charm to tell the body, ‘No need to find as much calcium today—only half the milk needs to be replenished.’ Her bones, etc. breathe a sigh of relief.”

I brought up the idea behind withholding high-calcium feed (like alfalfa) for 10 days prior and he said, “Yes, that can work and in a good percentage of cases, it does because the parathyroid gland is already on board telling the body to find non-food sources for calcium. But it’s very individualized and changes every time a cow gives birth, so it’s something that can be tried but never relied upon.”

He went on to say, “Calcium (boro)gluconate (sold as calcium gluconate … with boric acid added)
will give them a good boost of calcium for 6 to 12 hours (calcium propionate delivers longer, about twice as long), so timing would be everything. Ideally, you’d want to give her calcium right before birth, right after, and then take half the milk (colostrum), give more calcium, take half the milk, etc.” I commented, “this sounds like the design nature already devised given a new calf isn’t capable of draining an udder.” “Yes,” he said, “but the problem with where we are today, is that daily 20 grams needed for her unnatural udder.”

I’m pondering everything he said and wondering if I will or won’t withhold alfalfa and whether or not to try several SQ injections of calcium gluconate for prevention or merely keep it on hand for a milk fever emergency. (Dr. Barrington did say that in an emergency, the site can be cleaned and an entire 500 injected quickly in two different 250 locations.) If I use it for prevention, I would not only clean a couple of injection sites with alcohol, I think I’d also shave them like I did for Miss Daisy’s trocar because that’s a lot of fluid to inject under the skin (manufacturer suggests massage afterward), so I would want to ensure everything stayed very sterile (abscess prevention). I’m also thinking I should try calcium propionate orally (less caustic than the pre-mixed liquid version I tried). And I’m re-thinking when and how often I should milk. I don’t necessarily want to be running around with a dipper of iodine dipping leaking teats, but perhaps I could provide fresh, clean straw every few hours, let the calf take some, I’d take some (not all) and watch her like a hawk, calcium gluconate and needles on hand ready to administer (depending on whether or not I have good luck getting oral calcium propionate down her at least twice).

If you’ve never been through the terror of having a cow go down with milk fever, you’re probably thinking something like I used to think, “Hopefully, that probably won’t happen to me.” And then come up with plan B (no, plan E as in emergency) when it does happen. By then it might be too late, or you can’t find a vet because it’s the middle of the night. And honestly, for every time I got by without a cow going down, I became more and more confident it would/could never happen to me.

Please weigh in if you have more to add. One little bit of advice he also offered was the luck they’re having getting calves born during the day. “We feed cows about to give birth at night and not during the day, so they’ll calve. A calf prefers getting into position when there’s plenty of wiggle room and a full belly during the day can stymie that.”

7   L A T E S T    R E P L I E S    (Newest First)
NellieBelle Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 6:51:56 PM
You are welcome.
maryjane Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 5:47:17 PM
Thank you Janet.
NellieBelle Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 4:43:55 PM
I didn't give the recommended dose of 1.2 to 1.5 lb. per head daily. I gave a yogurt cup full in their feed daily for the 21 days before calving. I didn't give any after birthing. I didn't see anywhere in the directions on the sack to give it after calving. But I would give the entire amount if I have cows about to calve again.
maryjane Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 3:13:39 PM
I'll ask around here locally. Their website didn't seem to have a "locate dealer," but maybe I missed it or maybe I should call them.

How much did you give Nellie and Darla every day and how did you give it? Did you give it to them 21 days prior and then how long afterward?

Thanks Janet!
NellieBelle Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 11:45:11 AM
Our local elevator ordered it for us. They have no call for anything dairy, but said they would order it for us. I don't know if it's 40 or 50 lb. bag, I will go look... Ok, the bag says 55lbs.
maryjane Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 11:24:34 AM
Where did you purchase the Animate Supplement that you used this time on Nellie? And how much did you give her and in what type of feed?
NellieBelle Posted - Oct 22 2019 : 09:05:22 AM
So sorry to hear about M'lady. Heartbreaking. It's the thing I'm most concerned and worry about at calving time, milk fever. I have only had one near episode with Nellie and the vet brought her around with IV calcium. At that time the vet told me not to milk her out. Just enough colostrum for the calf. He said we remove too much and it depletes calcium and could be detrimental to the cow. And I still milked twice a day, but didn't take all the milk. I didn't realize that they can get milk fever even weeks post-delivery. With Nellie's last calf I was able to get the oral calcium down with caulking gun. It's nerve wracking. She would move her head so much so that we had to put a halter on her to get the job done. And yes I worry that they may aspirate and get pneumonia. I put it in quickly but not so fast that she couldn't swallow. And she did spit some out. I don't care for the stress. And I only took enough colostrum from Nellie for the calf (who wouldn't take it right away) and didn't milk her till late in the day, and then I didn't empty her out. So I no longer panic or rush to milk after cow delivery. I really do believe that the Animate Supplement in her feed 21 days prior, helped Nellie this last birth. She was showing issues, but I think the Animate made the difference. That and getting the oral calcium down with caulk gun. Our vet told us to pull back the alfalfa a month ahead of birthing and we did. She had grass hay and just enough feed to put the Animate supplement and of course some pasture grass. It was Darla we couldn't get the calcium down and I put it on her wet, newly delivered calf and she licked it off. I will have to try harder with her next round with the oral calcium if there is a next round.