Ketosis can expose cows to many more conditions - how to check for it

Tommy Heffernan

Tommy Heffernan

When a cow calves she must increase the intake of food at this time or at the very least the energy density should increase.

Anything that may affect her appetite or reduce feed intake must be avoided. It is important to ensure food being eaten has adequate energy in it.

A cow naturally will dip into negative energy after calving (for up to 6-8 weeks) which is where food intake can’t match output. We must minimise this period of negative energy as it can potentially have a negative long-term impact on the immune function and even production of the cow.

When a cow dips into this negative energy she ‘milks off her back’. All this means is that she will break down fat reserves to fill this energy gap.

This is okay for a short period but if it occurs long term or quickly it results in a condition called ketosis or more commonly subclinical ketosis which can be a build-up of the by-products of this fat breakdown called ketones.

If this condition persists for a prolonged period it can reduce appetite and depress immunity. This is very much like a gateway condition; simply put it predisposes the cow to so many more conditions.

Its reduction in appetite can also strongly link it with displaced abomasam. This is where the abomasum or true stomach will flip out of position mainly due to decreased feed intakes.

Ketosis is one of the reasons we see an increase in all sorts of infections in cows from mastitis to metritis post calving.

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It is really important to remember also that ketosis will inhibit the cow producing an egg or ovulating; this can delay heats dramatically and really affects overall herd and cow fertility.

Although this subclinical ketosis is not an obvious condition, it still causes so many issues we need to monitor it. The first thing we need to do is assess all the issues mentioned in cow comfort section. Provided these are right we need to look at the energy balance of feed. It can also be useful to look at disease incidence and check for levels of certain conditions. These can give indicators of potentially underlying problems.

We can also monitor for ketosis in freshly calved cows using milk samples, milk records and bloods. A simple tool I use around calving is a ketometer which measures BHB levels which when raised, gives me an indication of subclinical ketosis.

In large farms I now make this part of my routine visits around calving. We can also look at protein and fat ratios in milk to determine if there are issues. These can be fantastic ways of identifying issues and making adjustments to the diet.

I strongly feel that every dairy herd should be monitoring subclinical ketosis around calving using records and bloods.

Long term, it definitely will pay off.

Tommy Heffernan runs a veterinary practice in Avondale, Co Wicklow

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