Those who work closely with the calves on a dairy farm must always be on the lookout for signs of illness. Identifying calves that are dealing with the most common issues — scours and pneumonia — can quickly become second nature. Penn State Extension veterinarian Hayley Springer focused on one more ailment to watch for during a webinar discussing identification and prevention of calfhood diseases.

“I think navel disease is probably very underdiagnosed because you have to put your hands on the calf in order to really identify it,” Springer shared. In the context of this disease, the saying of “You don’t find what you don’t look for” doesn’t go deep enough, she continued. The veterinarian emphasized that, “You will not find what you don’t seek out.”

Identifying the problem quickly allows for more immediate treatment and helps prevent longer term impacts. In order to seek out cases of navel ill, Springer highlighted four characteristics to evaluate: swelling, heat, pain, and discharge level and smell.

Unless the swelling or discharge has become severe, you can’t really see any of those issues, she said, so a physical examination is best. Be sure you’re not examining the umbilical remnant that will drop off. “We’re looking at this haired area between where that umbilical remnant is and the body wall,” Springer explained.

When examining a calf, the veterinarian referred to the University of Wisconsin Calf Health Scoring System. A score of 1 indicates a normal navel. If the navel is slightly enlarged but with no heat or indication of pain, the calf is scored a 2; if slight heat or pain is observed with slight enlargement, the calf scores a 3. A score of 4 is given if the navel is enlarged with pain, heat, or unpleasant-smelling discharge.

The term “enlarged” in those evaluations can be defined as if the navel is thicker than your thumb before the calf is 7 days old, Springer said.

Prevent the problem

Work with your veterinarian to establish a treatment plan that works for your farm if navel ill is an issue, she continued. Before it gets to that point, though, proper navel care at birth is critical for prevention.

Ensuring calves are born into a clean environment must be a priority, which includes the maternity pen and the new calf pen. Then, navels should be dipped as soon as possible. Springer recommended using a dip targeted for navels. Even though teat dips have disinfectant properties, they will likely not have the drying properties that help the umbilical remnant dry up and fall off.

An effective product must also have good coverage and contact with the navel. For that reason, she advised against using a sprayer to apply dip. “Teat dippers can work as long as they’re properly maintained,” Springer continued, cautioning that letting them sit and get dirty in the maternity pen defeats the purpose of dipping the navel to reduce the chance of disease. She recommended using something like a small, single-use Dixie cup for best sanitation and coverage. A second dipping about 12 hours after the first is okay to do, but the veterinarian said dipping more than twice will result in excessive drying of the navel.

To comment, email your remarks to
(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2022
January 31, 2022
Subscribe to Hoard's Dairyman Intel by clicking the button below