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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care April 2009

Hi Folks,

First I’d like to thank Dr. Nathan Harvey at Gap Vet Associates for reminding me how to give a nerve block prior to disbudding calves with the burner. This is essentially the same as when you go to the dentist and they give you a shot to block the pain of the work. I have been exceptionally satisfied doing this and will continue to do so into the future. In one survey, more than 85% of dairy practitioners now do this routinely. The calves don’t jump about and stand calmly still. What a difference.

Anyway, as we get into grazing time, I want to talk a little about the energy needs of lactating cows. As we all know, the protein content of fresh growing grass is high. Protein has nitrogen in it. With lots of protein (nitrogen) going into the rumen, there also needs to be a balancing amount of energy (carbohydrate, carbon) going into the rumen. This is because there’s a biological cost to the cow to process all the extra protein nitrogen. Urea is created as part of the break down of soluble protein in the rumen and the urea is converted to urine, which is then excreted. This is not “free” and takes energy to metabolize this. This can deplete the cow. And yet energy is also needed in a big way for milk production, like that seen in spring freshened cows on grass. Two things will happen if not enough energy is available in the form of “groceries” delivered and taken in by the cow. Usually, the cow will rapidly lose condition and become skinny, which will reduce the potential milk yield. This is the well-known “milking the fat off the back” since body fat can be broken down by the liver into usable energy. But if this goes on too much and if the cow doesn’t eat enough to make up for the energy you are harvesting as milk twice a day, the cow’s internal metabolism will look for other forms of energy to utilize. The brain runs on glucose and the brain is always the first organ to be fed. So the cow’s body will start to make ketones, since the brain can run on this energy source, but only for a while before the cow starts to act weird. At this point the cow is desperate for energy and is starving.

Ketosis can either be primary or secondary. Primary ketosis is described in the preceding paragraph. Secondary ketosis is when ketosis occurs due to some other principal cause, most commonly a twisted stomach/displaced abomasum. But primary ketosis can itself cause a twisted stomach! However, in older cows there probably is a low level of calcium in the blood going on in the background the whole time.

There are three types of ketosis: clinical ketosis, sub-clinical ketosis and nervous ketosis.

Clinical ketosis is pretty well known. First, a gradual drop in milk production will be seen and the cow will eat mainly hay or fiber and not grain or energy feed (which is odd because that is what she needs). The rumen slows down and the manure becomes firm, almost horse-like. The breath and milk smells like glue or acetone. When opening up a cow to fix a displaced abomasum, the same smell will come from within the opened abdomen. Most ketosis occurs within the first month of calving. However, if a pregnant cow goes off feed for whatever reason, they are likely to be ketotic since the calf requires lots of energy late in pregnancy. Thus, off-feed dry cows or near fresh cows are extremely important to examine and determine the cause of being off-feed. Again, low calcium can easily be a factor, especially in older cows.

If clinical ketosis is left untreated, the cow’s brain can take ketones for only so long until she starts acting crazy. Once she starts nibbling at herself, the pipes nearby her or falling over, time is of the essence to get her an IV of dextrose. The bizarre signs take about 12 hours to go away once treated.

I think by far the most common type is sub-clinical ketosis. This is the kind that occurs in the cow but you are happily milking her and feeding her without even realizing it. Sub-clinical ketosis doesn’t give the symptoms as for clinical ketosis. Instead, it can only be detected by using a urine strip or milk powder that detects low levels of ketones. I believe that a very high majority of fresh cows grazing in the spring have sub-clinical ketosis. This is robbing you of valuable production and lost reproductive capability.

Treatment of ketosis is aimed at increasing the blood sugar. This can be done immediately by administering 250-500cc dextrose IV. However, this will only last about 4-6 hours and then blood glucose levels will decline again unless the cow starts to eat and take in her own energy. Providing an oral source of ingredients that the cow can convert to usable energy is the best way to help a cow get over ketosis (akin to putting wood in a woodstove). This includes using propylene glycol (not allowed for organics) and glycerin (only to be used when mixed with dextrose and labeled as “dextrose with glycerin as a carrier”). Cows hate the taste of propylene glycol but seem to enjoy glycerin. Taste each for yourself and you’ll see why. Using molasses or other sweet tasting compounds are popular. A good thing to do would be to put molasses upon the feed so that the cow will eat what is in front of her instead of only being drenched with it. If you do want to drench molasses, a good drench would be a 50/50 mix of molasses and apple cider vinegar, fed at the rate of 8 ounces twice daily as needed. Always hold the head just above parallel to the ground, but nevernose to sky since having the nose sky high will get liquids into the windpipe and lungs too easily. When drenching anything, give the cow a little bit, stop to let her cough or spit it out a little, then drench some more, stop again, and so forth. Never just run in something into a cow’s mouth with not a care about how fast it goes in. Treatment of liquid in the lungs is almost always unsuccessful.

Preventing ketosis is obviously critical in order to have a good lactation as well as getting the cow bred back in a reasonable amount of time since skinny cows tend not to get bred easily. The whole idea, therefore, is to graze wisely and provide energy in the diet that the cow wants to eat and that is healthy for her. Simply throwing grain at a cow that is skinny can have disastrous consequences during lush pasture growth by creating rumen acidosis. Try to have a lot of clover in your pastures to provide energy. Cows love clover. But also try to graze paddocks between 7-10 inches high since this will provide effective fiber and slow down the passage of feed in the rumen. Too often people graze very young growth which will hurt paddock re-growth and not provide effective fiber to the rumen. The longer you can keep feed in the rumen, the better chance the cow can extract its nutritional value. While the lower gut definitely also extracts nutritional value from feed, if there is not enough effective fiber in the rumen to slow feed passage, you will have too much “pasture manure” and be losing nutrients out the back end. While dry hay is the best feed to slow down rumen passage and helps create milk butterfat, cows don’t usually want to eat it with the green paddocks available. However, they do still like to eat corn silage! And while many graziers do not want to feed corn silage, it does keep body condition on grazing cows. And keeping body condition on grazing cows is extremely important for them to not develop ketosis. Good body condition is critical to getting your cows bred back in a timely manner. Do whatever it takes to balance the cow’s biological requirement for energy and protein this grazing season.

NOTE: Ben M. Stoltzfus’s son, John, will have 30 certified organic acres to raise organic heifers. Also, they have 5 milking cows (3 just fresh, 1 springer and 1 dry) for sale. Call 717-768-3437.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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