Management recommendations: Umbilical infections

Umbilical infections, along with diarrhea and respiratory diseases, are among the three most common diseases in newborn calves.

During gestation, the calf is supplied with oxygen and nutrients, but not antibodies, by the dam through the umbilical cord. During birth, the umbilical cord breaks and loses its function. It remains moist for a few more days and then gradually dries up until it falls off around day 14.

In the first days after birth, however, an open spot remains on the umbilical cord at the transition to the abdominal wall, through which germs can enter. Therefore, inflammation in the umbilical structures is often due to poor hygiene, in the period around the birth of the calf. In addition to local inflammation, the bacteria can spread to joints, the lungs, or other organs, leading to sepsis. This provides severe complications, leading to increased mortality. Diagnosis of umbilical inflammation is based on the local signs of inflammation pain, swelling, local heat and purulent discharge.

But what does this mean for the farms?

The best prevention for navel diseases is good hygiene, as well as increasing the resistance of the calf. For this purpose, good colostrum management is of great importance. This is because calves are born without an intact immune system. To build up the immune system, the calf depends on a rapid supply of high-quality colostrum in sufficient quantity after birth to ensure the transfer of immunoglobulins from the dam’s milk. If this does not happen, the calf is much more susceptible to disease and has an increased risk of mortality. For this purpose, it is crucial to milk the cow quickly after birth, for that the calf can drink three liters of colostrum within the first four hours of life and a total of four liters within the first 12 hours of life. In addition, the colostrum should be tested to ensure a high quality (at least 22 Brix). For more information on colostrum, see our article.

To optimize hygiene, special attention should be paid to the calving pen. This is the first place the newborn calf has contact with, in a situation where it has yet no immune system. The calving pen should be regularly mucked out, disinfected, and re-bedded, and should have no contact with the pen for sick cows. Also, the time the calf remains in the calving pen should be kept as short as possible to minimize germ exposure in the first hours of life.

Whether navel care is always necessary is discussed controversial. However, if umbilical infections occur frequently on a farm, the calf’s navel can be dipped with a 7% iodine, or a 2% chlorhexidine solution after birth before being moved to the final housing, which is also cleaned, disinfected, and freshly bedded. Further manipulation of the navel, such as streaking or massaging the solution into the navel, should be avoided.

Keeping calves individually until at least after the umbilical cord has dried up (around day 4-7 after birth) can additionally reduce the risk of disease. This is because the mutual suckling of calves can promote the development of umbilical inflammation through the entry of bacteria.

Our expert tips in the checklist:

Optimize colostrum supply

  • 3 liters in first 4 hours, total 4 liters in first 12 hours
  • Test quality (optimal >22% Brix)

Hygiene in the calving pen

  • Regular mucking out, disinfection, fresh bedding
  • No contact with sick animals
  • Short residence time in the calving pen

Navel disinfection

  • Dip with 7% iodine or 2% chlorhexidine solution
  • Do not manipulate navel unnecessarily

If, despite good management, an outbreak of umbilical inflammation occurs, our Calf Monitoring System can help you detect them early and give you initial recommendations on what steps to take in this case. We will be happy to explain the advantages this has for you in a personal consultation.

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