“Calf success starts the first 24 hours of life. Everything you do within those first 24 hours has a long-term impact,” said Tina Kohlman, a dairy and livestock agent with the University of Wisconsin Division of Extension. One of the areas she focused on during a Badger Dairy Insights “Optimizing management for calf health and welfare” webinar was navel care.
“We all know to dip the navel at the birth, but why is it so important?” Kohlman asked. The reason, she explained, is that the navel serves as a pathway into the newborn calf. In utero, that opening provides a pathway for nutrients to travel from the dam to the unborn calf and for waste to pass from the calf to the dam.
Once the calf is born and the umbilical cord detaches from the dam’s body, it becomes an opening into the calf, providing access for pathogens and bacteria to enter. These pathogens and bacteria can travel to organs, pass onto the joints, or enter the bloodstream and make a calf very sick.
“The calf has a naïve immune system and is very susceptible to disease, and the navel is a great opening for bacteria to enter,” Kohlman noted. “That’s why it’s really important to take care of that umbilical cord.”
Calves with a navel infection are at greater risk for morbidity and mortality. Average daily gain may be reduced growth as the calf is putting nutrients toward the immune system instead of growth. Furthermore, an infection can turn into an umbilical hernia and cause other issues for a young calf. One survey estimated that 15% to 20% of calves in the U.S. have some level of navel infection.
To reduce this problem, Kohlman said to provide a clean, dry calving area, with little moisture and manure. “When a calf lands in our environment, we want it to be clean, dry, and as bacteria free as possible,” she stated. “Fresh bedding is key.”
She recommended dipping the navel at birth and then again at 24 hours, especially if the farm has a history of navel infections. The ideal product is a 7% tincture iodine solution, but Kohlman acknowledged that it has become difficult to access that product. Other options include 4% chlorhexidine or another umbilical cord dry-out solution.
Another step in maintaining navel health is regular monitoring. Kohlman said to palpate the cord of calves at 3 to 5 days of age. The navel stump should be soft to the touch. If it is hard, foul smelling, or has discharge, that is a sign of infection. In addition, palpate any sick calves under 2 weeks of age to be sure a navel infection isn’t the root of the problem.
Kohlman said it is important to know what a healthy navel looks like, too. By three to five days after birth, she explained that the cord should be drying up and be about with of a pencil diameter.
It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, but navel care is a critical part of the newborn calf care equation.
“Making sure we have good dip coverage with the right product and a clean, dry environment to minimize the impact of disease on a calf is key to proving a healthy start,” Kohlman concluded.