Milk fever in beef cows

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Minerals are critical to the health and performance of grazing livestock, and deficiencies and excesses can cause weight loss, decreased reproductive performance, and a variety of nutritional disorders. Milk fever and grass tetany are two metabolic issues that can occur as a result of mineral imbalances this time of year. It is important to understand various factors that contribute to the potential for these disorders and also to understand associated symptoms and treatments to minimize losses. 

Milk Fever (Parturient Paresis)

Milk fever is generally associated with high-producing dairy cattle; however, it can also occur in beef cattle. Milk fever is a result of hypocalcaemia (low calcium). Most forage contains enough calcium (Ca) to meet the minimal requirements of livestock (around 40 grams per day). However, a dramatic increase in calcium (Ca) requirements occurs with the onset of lactation in the dam, and requirements are typically unable to be met simply by increasing Ca intake. Colostrum contains 2.0 – 2.3g/L of Ca, which drains reserves in the cow’s blood stream. Typically, milk fever is seen in mature cows as they have a much greater rate of colostrum production. Hypocalcaemia results in a decrease in smooth muscle function, decreasing rumen and gastrointestinal tract function and ultimately resulting in a decrease in dry matter intake. In addition, decreases in uterine motility and immunity raise the risk of uterine infections and decreased fertility. 

Normal levels of Ca in the blood will be between 8.5 and 11 mg/dL; however, levels drop dramatically in a cow  experiencing milk fever, resulting in clinical symptoms (Table 1). This decrease in Ca in the blood supply directly impacts the animal’s ability to regulate muscle contractions and relaxation, which is the most identifiable clinical signs of milk fever.

Cattle must be able to increase absorption of calcium in the small intestine and mobilize stored calcium from bones to effectively meet increased requirements of lactation. Mobilization of bone calcium is regulated by parathyroid hormone (PTH), which is produced by glands in the neck. When blood calcium levels drop, PTH is activated. As this occurs, a secondary hormone derived from vitamin D in the kidney stimulates the intestine to increase absorption of dietary calcium. If calcium intake from the diet was sufficient prior to calving, mechanisms for stimulating calcium mobilization may not be stimulated. Therefore, a decrease in calcium intake is actually recommended late in gestation to prime those systems and increase their functionality prior to the onset of lactation. However, it is difficult to get calcium levels in the diet low enough to actually prevent milk fever. 

Another factor that can affect the ability of cows to mobilize Ca reserves from bone is pH of the blood. Calcium acts as a base in the blood, thus higher levels of Ca will result in more alkaline blood pH. If pH of cattle is too alkaline, hormones that stimulate PTH does not act efficiently on bone or kidney tissues, and cattle are unable to mobilize Ca reserves. Adequate levels of magnesium (Mg) are also important in the function of these hormones. If magnesium is deficient, supplying magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, or magnesium oxide in the diet at a level of up to 0.4% can help acidify the blood. Excessive potassium (K) in the diet is one of the major factors affecting blood pH and potentially contributing to milk fever. Some types of forage may have excessively high amounts of K due to fertilization strategies and accumulation of potassium in plant tissues. High levels of K may be  observed in lush green grasses and alfalfa, while corn silage, straw, and small grain forages tend to contain lower levels. If forages are suspect in milk fever cases, potassium concentration should be determined by standard “wet chemistry” lab analysis (See iGrow publication: Feed Testing Laboratories). Rations with less than 2% K are recommended to prevent milk fever.

Although mineral requirements are considered to be small in relation to other nutrients, they serve numerous important functions in animal health and immune response. Milk fever is an example of how complex mineral interactions and imbalances can cause metabolic issues, particularly in lactating animals with increased requirements. Early detection is key in successful treatment, so producers should observe cattle closely to minimize losses, and producers should maintain close contact with their veterinarian for the best prevention and treatment strategies.

Source: Janna Kincheloe


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