How To Treat Milk Fever In Cows

Milk fever can strike lactating livestock, leaving them paralyzed and distressing dairy farmers. Learn the symptoms and treatments to help your cows recover.


| May 2017



Cow

Lactating cows are susceptible to "milk fever."


Photo by Adobe Stock/Daviles

Keeping A Family Cow (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013), by Joann Grohman, guides potential and current small farmers on how to care for and benefit from raising dairy cows. The following excerpt from chapter fifteen (Treating Milk Fever) details the medical condition known as ‘milk fever’ that is sometimes found in lactating cows and how cattle owners can combat this condition.

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Calcium tetany and parturient paresis are more descriptive names for milk fever, a hormonal disorder that may occur in high-producing cows just before or soon after calving or (rarely) at other times. There is no fever. It is a form of paralysis brought on by elevated calcium demands at the onset of lactation. Its principal victims are high-producing cows and goats, although it is not unknown in sows, dogs, and cats. Among cattle, it is more common in Jerseys than other breeds, because Jerseys give more milk in proportion to their size.

Steady calcium levels are essential to muscle function; calcium blood levels must be maintained as precisely as those of oxygen or glucose. A drop quickly becomes critical, and so a complex system of hormonal controls exists in all animals. Where the sudden calcium demands of lactation onset are exceptionally high, as in the higher-producing cow, the system may prove inadequate. The resulting paralysis is called milk fever. No diet can be counted on to meet the calcium demand. The hormonal control system is designed to pick up calcium from bone reserves. But during the cow’s dry period, when calcium demands are low, the system “goes to sleep.”

The milk fever prevention diet is designed to keep the cow’s system slightly starved for calcium so that the needs of the unborn calf cannot be met by the cow’s diet alone and thus bone mobilization remains active. Vitamin D should also be given. Milk fever usually occurs only after a normal calving. The stress of difficult calving seems to activate the adrenal and other glands so that the vital hormone levels are in place when needed.

Symptoms

The very first symptom is an unsteady gait. You may notice it during the day. Soon the cow lies down, and if you feel her ears they will be cold and usually droopy. After calving I check my cow’s ears hourly and have been known to sleep in the barn. If the cow is on her feet, early symptoms include paddling with the hind feet and swaying as if she is about to fall over. Once down, she will twist her head and neck to the side as if there were a kink in her neck. Her nose becomes dry. Another warning signal is if your cow, which was bright and active caring for her newborn calf, becomes listless and inattentive. This could be a symptom of any malaise, but at this particular moment in your cow’s life, suspect milk fever.





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