by Carlos Risco
This disagreeable problem takes its toll on fresh cows. Identifying at-risk cows is your first challenge.
The goal of your fresh cow program should be to get early peak milks while quickly returning cows to a healthy condition and early cycling. But, fresh cows are uniquely challenged by suppressed immune function and negative energy balance, making them susceptible to metabolic and reproductive diseases.
One of the most common reproductive challenges facing cows in early lactation is metritis. Most often diagnosed within the first 10 days in milk, metritis is defined as the presence of foul-smelling, watery vaginal discharge, systemic signs of ill-health, with or without fever (rectal temperature of 103° or greater).
Cows that experience an abnormal calving are more likely to develop metritis. As you see in the figure, stillbirths, dystocia, and twins raise the risk of retained placenta, ketosis, displaced abomasums, and poor immune function in general. You should watch cows experiencing any of these challenges closely for symptoms of metritis.
Herds where transition cows are more stressed are likely to see higher rates of all fresh cow diseases. Stress can include frequent pen moves before, during, or immediately after calving. Research from the Miner Institute has shown that, for every pen move, it takes cows two to five days to reestablish social rank. This results in cows eating less, leaving them more vulnerable to ketosis and other disorders.
In herds where cows are overcrowded in close-up and fresh cow housing, metritis also will be more of a problem. There should be at least two feet per cow of bunk space, and some experts recommend as much as 30 inches. Cows that do not have a properly balanced pre- and postcalving ration or come into calving too heavy or too thin will be challenged by a negative energy balance and also experience greater challenges from calving.
A study conducted here at the University of Florida has shown a benefit to monitoring rectal temperature after calving. We observed a total of 450 calvings, and cows were sorted into a normal or difficult calving group. From Days 3 to 13 after calving, we took rectal temperature early in the morning. Cows that had either a fever (rectal temperature greater than or equal to 103°) or appeared sick (depressed, eyes tented), were examined for the presence of a serous, brown-colored, fetid, vaginal discharge.
Cows began displaying fever two to three days before metritis was diagnosed. However, while overall incidence of metritis was 21 percent (94/450), only 39 cows had fever (at diagnosis, indicating that many cows with metritis may not show a typical fever (103° or higher). Avoid too much reliance on rectal temperature to diagnose metritis.
In addition, you should learn to identify sick cows and treat them early and correctly. This should include monitoring the attitude and behavior of the cow and condition of the uterus, as well as rectal temperature when diagnosing and treating metritis. Is there a presence of a brown-colored vaginal discharge? Does the cow look sick or listless, or is she straining?
The timeline protocol described below can be used to manage transition cows:
Optimize immune function during the transition period (21 days before calving). The transition ration must be properly balanced for dietary-cation-anionic (DCAD) difference, energy, fiber, vitamins, and mineral content. Cows should be eating 24 to 26 pounds of dry matter per day and have adequate bunk and resting space. Monitor body condition and target a score of 3.5 to 3.75.
Have trained supervised calving. You should be able to identify and properly treat dystocia, milk fever, retained fetal membranes, and udder edema. The calving area also must be clean and well designed.
Monitor health right after calving (10 days postpartum). There are two general purposes for this program. First, you want to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in cows that will not benefit from this type of treatment. Second, it also ensures that all fresh cows are examined daily during the time when they are most susceptible to disease.
Optimize performance after calving by minimizing pen moves and through a ration properly balanced for energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to promote an early return to positive energy balance and resumption of cycling. After calving, cows should not lose more than one point of body condition score during the first 60 days. During this time, you should administer prostaglandin to induce estrus to improve uterine health and initiate presynchronization programs.
Optimize pregnancy rate at the end of voluntary waiting period (60 to 80 days after calving) through use of a timed A.I. protocol.
Even people with the best programs will have to treat cows for metritis. Incidence rates range from 10 to 30 percent.
When you have to treat fresh cows for metritis, there are several key points:
Avoid moving them to the hospital barn. Pen moves upset social rank and result in reduced feed intake and less milk. Cows infected with metritis should not be moved unless they have been treated with an antibiotic that has a milk withholding time. Using treatments with no milk withhold allows cows to remain in the fresh pen and maintain as much nutrient intake as possible.
What about use of uterine contractors right after calving? Research results have not been consistent in showing a beneficial effect.
Use a voluntary waiting period (60 to 80 days days in milk) to allow cows to return to a positive energy balance and start cycling. This will help pregnancy rate.
Consider latest available treatment remedies. Although there are various antibiotics that can be used, Ceftiofur HCl (Excenel RTU) is labeled for the treatment of metritis and does not require milk discard. In a study by Chenault (2004), a clinical cure rate in 77 percent of cases was found by 14 days after treatment.
Treatment options for metritis remain limited. This makes vigilant monitoring and aggressive prevention even more important. An effective transition cow strategy requires a system for health monitoring after calving, completed by properly trained and supervised health technicians. Cow comfort also is critical.
Work with your veterinarian to establish farm protocols, and effectively train individuals who will be working with close-up and fresh cows. Responsible use of antibiotics, under the supervision of a veterinarian, is critical to ensure that cows are safely, responsibly, and humanely treated for disease, while also maintaining the wholesomeness of their meat and milk.