The Evils of Navel Ill & Other Lowlights of the 2013 Calving Season

Debra Murphy

The 2013 calving season was, to say the least, awful on our farm. Ugh, I still shudder at the thought of it. If you were anything like me, you were confused. The lack of sleep and surplus of snow certainly didn’t help. Why is this calf sick? What are these signs and symptoms indicative of? What do I do to treat it? How many calves can I fit in the tractor at once? How many can I fit in the basement? Is it possible to bring the whole herd indoors? Then…Where is the nearest auction mart? And when is the next flight to Hawaii?

In fact, I received numerous different answers to the same questions, depending who I talked to. But calves exhibited the same symptomology, and if they were not treated immediately, were nearly impossible to save. So, soon after being hired by RealAgriculture, I emailed Cody Creelman, a veterinarian at Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie. The email interrogation was centred around “navel ill,” the rather intimidating diagnosis a couple of our calves were given.

Have I lost your attention? Think you know all you need to about navel ill? Think again, my friends. It can be far more serious than a simple infection of the umbilical cord.

“Generalized infections as a result of navel infection can include omphaloarteritis and omphalophelbitis,” wrote Creelman. In the case of omphaloarteritis, “the infection travels into the umbilical arteries resulting in bacterial infection in the bloodstream (septicemia), often settling in the joints causing septic arthritis (joint ill).”

The latter, omphalophelbitis (oh my goodness, try saying that one out loud), results in disease of the liver.  Obviously, both mean serious business, so prevention is key, and if navel ill is suspected, immediate action is essential.

So, you have a droopy-eared, sad-looking calf. How can you determine whether or not navel infection is likely? First, look for swelling and potentially pus in the umbilical area, check for signs of pain in the calf (this can be done by touching the umbilical area. If in pain, the calf will likely hunch its back and pull its stomach up and away from the pressure).

Navel ill is often confused with another condition called an umbilical hernia,” cautions Creelman. In umbilical hernia, however, signs of inflammation like heat and pain will not be present. “Hernias will also be softer swellings, the hernia ring can be palpated and in many cases the hernia can be reduced back into the abdomen.”

If you suspect navel ill, talk to your veterinarian about a broad-spectrum antibiotics, and move the little fella to a clean environment, if at all possible. Then, work to prevent future incidences.

The likelihood of calves developing navel ill increases drastically in unhygienic environments. Start with clean, dry bedding, particularly in the interim between birth and the umbilical stalk drying up. Also important is ensuring that calves are receiving passive immunity through mom’s colostrum.

“If the calf is not getting enough colostrum from the cow within the first six hours, supplementary colostrum must be provided in a timely manner,” warns Creelman. “Failure of passive transfer, or the failure of the calf to get enough antibodies from the colostrum within the critical time period, is one of the leading causes of navel ill and other infections.”

For us, I think it was a combination of wet conditions and calves failing to get enough colostrum. I bedded frequently in open, clean pastures, but the snow storms in early April made it absolutely impossible to keep bedding dry. That combined with cold conditions meant calves were slower to get up. We took in a few calves on the edge of hypothermia, warmed them, fed them colostrum and saw their slow recovery. I honestly don’t even like talking about this “spring,” but I have learned a lot.

How about you? Did you have a rough calving season? Will you change any management strategies as a result?

I hope at the very least we invest in better shelter, preferably portable wind breaks. We will also be calving later this year and hoping for warmer conditions…and perhaps two less feet of snow, not that I’m fussy.

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