Maladies: Milk Fever and Mastitis

Whenever my family milk cow is about to calve, there’s always a bit of anxiety that goes along with the excitement. The anxiety comes from previous experience when things have gone wrong. Two of the most common problems that can occur to the mother after birth are milk fever and mastitis. I’ve mentioned mastitis in a previous blog.

Rita with her new calf, Coke.

Last June, when Sienna gave birth to Marabelle, she got mastitis. It’s very common for it to occur when a cow first “freshens,” (gets her milk in). The last time I milked Sienna (which was in March), I treated her with a product called ToMORROW. This is supposed to help protect cows from getting infections when you dry them up. I asked my vet if there was anything else I could do to keep Sienna from getting mastitis again when she freshens. “Nope,” came his disappointing response.

As was explained to me, when a cow “bags up” so big before birth, the teats swell and there can be opportunities for bacteria to find its way in and cause the infection.

Milk fever is when a cow’s body cannot produce enough calcium to replace what is being drained from her body through her milk. In short, it’s a very serious calcium deficiency. Thankfully, I’ve only had this happen once. It was with my first milk cow, Tilly. It was very scary. She went down and wouldn’t get back up. We had to call the vet to come out to our farm. He gave her one shot, and she perked right up and stood again, like nothing was wrong. It was crazy to watch. He said she had milk fever, and I shouldn’t have milked her out completely. It was my first milk cow, so I had lots to learn.

Now I try to be careful about this. The first few days are a balancing act of trying not to take too much milk from my cow, so she has plenty for her calf and doesn’t get milk fever, while also not leaving too much. Leave too much and she’ll be uncomfortable and could get mastitis. Now you can see where the anxiety comes from.

By the way, I should insert here that what comes from the cow isn’t actually milk for the first couple of days. As most people know, first comes colostrum, which has been described as “liquid gold.” It’s imperative that the calf (or any newborn mammal) get this from its mother to ward of infections and strengthen immunity.

Going back to Tilly’s calving experience again for a minute. It was the first time I had owned a milk cow and her first calf since I had owned her. Not only did she get milk fever, but she delivered a stillborn calf. I’m very thankful it has been the only stillborn calf I’ve ever experienced. Since I didn’t know why Tilly wouldn’t budge or even get up, I first thought she was bemoaning her dead calf and didn’t want to leave it. I’m sure the vet laughed to himself when I told him this theory.

Sprite with his mama, Selina.

Giving birth is a risky endeavor. I’m sure anyone with livestock can tell their own stories of births that didn’t go as hoped. (I’m not even going to get into human births here.) On our farm, it’s going to be calving season for the next few weeks. All our mama cows were bred at the same time, so they should deliver fairly close to each other. Two of our Longhorns have already given birth to healthy babies, one bull, one heifer. I named the heifer Sprite and the bull Coke.

At the time of this writing, Sienna still hasn’t had her calf. It’s hard to believe. Her bag is huge. She looks so uncomfortable. It’ll come when it’s good and ready, I guess.

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