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How to prevent navel infections in newborn calves

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Navel or joint ill is a disease of young calves, usually less than one week of age. It occurs as a result of infection entering via the umbilical cord at, or soon after, birth. A navel cord is a highway into a calf’s bloodstream. Proper management of the navel right after birth can ensure a calf gets off to an infection‐free start. The umbilical cord is made up of blood vessels that, after calving, remain like hollow tubes where bacteria can enter the calf, and get into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria can circulate throughout the calf’s body, causing diseases like septicemia-blood infection meningitis-brain infection and arthritis  which is swollen joints.

Navel problems include wet navels or navel infections. Navels that don’t dry up are often infected. Infection enlarges the navel cord and impedes the closure of the opening into the calf’s abdomen. If the opening is big enough, the calf’s intestine can protrude through the opening. This is called an umbilical hernia. Herniation may damage the bowel. Some small hernias eventually close on their own; however larger ones require treatment or even surgery to fix them.

Management at calving is the key to avoiding navel issues. Often keeping the bedding in the calving area dry and dipping the calf’s navel in disinfectant right after birth solves navel‐related problems. A clean calving area reduces the exposure of the navel area to bacteria in manure, urine and dirt. Dipping the navel right after birth dries it out, helps the large blood vessels to close and kills any bacteria already present. Repeated dipping of enlarged cords over the first few days of life is a good practice. Ensuring everyone handling calves knows what to look for and knows to check the navels routinely can help with early detection of navel problems.

Good navel management is important all year round and it comes down to proper monitoring and management on the farm. It is well worth investing the time and effort in a good calf management system. Here are tips on what you can do to ensure your calves are clean with dry navels:

Environment

  • Have a clean calving area to minimize the risk of infection. Once a calf can breathe easily, it should be moved to an area of the pen with clean bedding that is not accessible to the cow. This could be a corner of the pen separated by a low – three to four foot gate – both are high enough to prevent a calf from climbing out but low enough for the cow to reach over and lick it off. Using this area will limit calf exposure to manure, urine and dirt.
  • Feed all newborn calves’ adequate amounts of good quality colostrum, with the first feed occurring within two hours of birth. Each calf needs to be offered about 15 per cent of its bodyweight in colostrum the first day divided into first and second feedings. This provides them with rapid immunity that protects them against bacterial infections that can start from infected navels. Contact your veterinarian to make a plan for colostrum feeding. Not all calves drink the same amount in early life. You need a plan to cover off what you will do for calves that are reluctant to suck.
  • Feed transition milk during the first three days of life. It’s higher in fat and protein as well as other nutrients for newborn calves.
  • Keep calves on clean, dry bedding. This is especially important for calves without an external umbilical cord.

Navel dipping

  • Remove any debris or straw on the navel cord and dip it immediately, once the calf is breathing well on its own. Re‐check it in 24 hours to make sure the umbilical cord is drying up and that there are no navel infections . Re‐dip the navel if necessary.
  • Iodine with at least seven per cent iodine should be used for dipping. The alcohol in the solution will help dry out the cord. Don’t use a diluted iodine because they won’t offer the level of protection a calf needs. They also contain substances that will prevent drying.
  • When dipping immerse the full length of the cord in the solution, right up to the calf’s belly. Use a fresh disposable paper cup per calf or a non‐return teat dip cup for dipping to avoid disease transmission between animals.
  • Clean all cups well between uses.
  • Store cups in a clean area near the calving pen and cover the cups between uses.
  • Change the dipping solution after five calves or two days, whichever comes first.
  • Don’t use a spray because it won’t cover the full cord area, nor travel up the openings of the blood vessels as well as a dipped product will.

Management

  • Check the navel area at least once daily for the first week until the navel cord heals and dries.
  • Examine the navel to check for swelling or pain that might indicate the presence of infection. There should be no drainage or foul smell, nor should the examination cause a painful response from the calf.
  • A navel is considered dry when the full length of the cord, to the junction of the skin of the abdomen of the calf, is dry, inflexible and shriveled.

Ensure you have a protocol in place to deal with enlarged or infected navels. Work with your veterinarian to write a treatment plan for this condition.

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