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Select cows for udder conformation

Animal Health with Roy Lewis: Calves start at a disadvantage if they can't nurse properly

While there are many things to evaluate in cow selection, the importance of udder and teat conformation should not be underestimated. Many a cow is culled later in life because of bad teats. Her calves may have a hard time sucking and getting much-needed colostrum. Getting a calf sucking on big coke-bottle teats can take a lot of individual attention in the spring calving rush when labour is at a premium.

When making your heifer replacement selection in the spring, look at the developing udder for signs of abnormally large or small teats. You want the teats placed uniformly in a square. You don’t want extra teats. This is especially critical in dairy cattle where milking equipment is put on four teats on a twice-daily basis. Most supernummery (extra) teats are rudimentary at best and are usually found either between or behind the normal four teats. We do surgically remove a few in show cattle but most often they are left. They become a problem if they are large and the calf tries to suck on them. They are most often blind ending and rudimentary with no milk producing gland attached to them. Occasionally you will have a five-quartered cow, which doesn’t hurt in a beef herd but is a definite no-no in a dairy animal.

Some heifer calves deposit a lot of fat in the udder. This extra fat has been proven to definitely hurt future milk production. They become the good-looking, fat, healthy cows that produce scrawny calves because of lack of milk production. Lower weaning weights are most generally a sign of poor milk production unless there is another medical reason for the poor weight gains. This is another good reason for records and having tags in both cow and calf — by knowing the birth date of the calf and its size at weaning the poor milkers can be tracked and eliminated.

Teats on yearlings should be noticeable but not too large and evenly placed. Teats that are too small or too large make it difficult for newborn calves to latch onto. Smaller teats also have a smaller streak canal requiring lots of sucking to get any amount of milk. Calves are not stupid so will gravitate to sucking on the teats that milk the easiest. Large teats are hard for the calf to suck as well. They have larger streak canals and if the teat sphincter is weak will often leak milk if not sucked out. Quarters that are not being sucked out are prone to mastitis. Over the years the teat will get larger from never being milked out and/or a chronic mastitis will take hold rendering the quarter useless.

Shut down infected quarters

The good news about chronic mastitis is the quarter can be dried off chemically. Your veterinarian can advise on treatment, which usually involves inserting either copper sulphate solution or silver nitrate solutions into the infected quarter. This sets up a chemical inflammation, scarring and drying off of the quarter. I prefer using 12 cc of a one per cent silver nitrate solution infused up the quarter and then repeated in 10 days. It works best if the cow is in the process of being weaned and the other quarters are being dried off naturally. The cow then freshens next year as a three-teater, with no loss of milk production. A three-teated cow will have some compensation and produce almost as much as a four-teated cow. If two quarters are shot it is best to cull the animal, as milk production is considerably less. Calves find the taste of mastitic milk is not good so usually avoid these quarters. Udder swelling and inflammation should alert the producer to check.

Scarred and blind teats are more difficult to identify. A good indicator is if a calf always seems to be sucking and yet is gaunt or the cow’s udder is always full. If in doubt, get her into the maternity pen and strip out the quarters to see if milk is present. Anytime a female is held in a maternity pen, strip them out to make sure teats are not plugged. You can detect problems early. Many calves starve to death or just don’t get enough colostrum because of teat issues.

Heavy milkers in later life develop low-slung bags and/or their suspensory apparatus becomes stretched. This puts teat placement too low, making it difficult for tall calves to reach. These cows should be put on the cull list. Self-suckers or heifers that suck on their pen mates should also be sold as slaughter animals. Also watch for teat injuries from freezing on windy, cold days. Teat ointments may be able to reduce some serious mastitis problems or prevent calves getting kicked from sucking sore, blackened teats

By being diligent and not using the undesirables as replacements we can lower the cull rate for udder and teat problems later in life. The goal is to produce tight-uddered, soft milkers with good milk production with potential for a long productive life in your herd. Any cows with teat issues blind quarters or infected quarters (mastitis) should be put on the cull list.

Newborn calves should be transplanted to a more worthy cow.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.

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