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Dirty conditions can lead to uterine infections

Barn cleanliness as well as nutrition can be among the contributors

Cows leaving the dairy

Many dairy cows come down with a uterine infection after calving. Some are slight but some are more serious. While there are host of factors which cause them, some reasons such as a dirty calving area are obvious, other reasons such as persistent metabolic problems are not so clear. Fortunately, a good spring-cleaning and improvements to the current transition cow-feeding program goes a long way in reducing the number of postpartum uterine infections.

One of the most terrible cases I witnessed was about 10 years ago in an old 60-cow tie-stall dairy barn. Several of the fresh cows that were just brought inside had a putrid discharge coming from their vulvas.

Since I found this unusual, I asked the producer about it and he told me that all of these cows had retained placentas. By the time their afterbirth finally fell out, the cows had full-blown uterine infections. According to the producer, his veterinarian gave him a bottle of medicated boluses to treat each serious case and the discharge had never completely disappeared. In hindsight, my experience here seems to be a good illustration of serious uterine infections in postpartum cows, better known as metritis.

Most healthy cows exhibit a milder form of bacterial infection in the superficial layers of their uterus after calving. This is a normal condition called endometritis. Dairy producers may notice a red-brown, odourless discharge for one to two weeks. Such an incident will not significantly affect the cows’ health, lactation or reproductive performance. Most of these cows expel their placenta with 12 hours after calving and began rapid involution of the gestating uterus and cervix to its non-pregnant size. The natural defences of a strong immune system kick in and by six weeks postpartum eliminate bacteria and its contaminants from the uterus.

I associated this dairy producer’s cows’ metritis as the simple aftermath of a dirty outside calving pen. However, they could also have been caused by dietary metabolic issues such as a calcium imbalance (milk fever) or negative energy balance (ketosis) during or shortly after calving.

Prevention measures

If I were given a chance to do another barn walk for this dairy producer or where there were a significant number of fresh cows with metritis, this is the approach I would take:

  • Review the transition cow diet. It should carry about 40-50 per cent eNDF (forage fibre) as well as a modest amount of dietary energy that falls between relatively low values recommended for faraway dry cows and high energy-enriched early lactation diets, namely about 0.60-0.65 Mcal/lb. (dm, basis). I also balance the close-up dry cow diet with 14-15 per cent protein. A balance of calcium and phosphorus in a 1.5:1.0 to 2.5:1.0 with potassium levels controlled to promote good calcium metabolism. It should have good mineral-vitamin micro-premix to supply essential levels of copper, zinc, selenium, Vitamin A and high levels of Vitamin E.
  • Be aware of low feed intake issues in the close-up pen. There is about a 30 per cent natural decline in dry matter intake from the start of the faraway dry period to calving. In many barns, I find many close-up dry-cow pens are overcrowded with limited bunk space. I would observe the postpartum cows brought into the lactation barn in the same way.
  • Make sure that pens and stalls are clean and dry. Pathogenic bacteria that invade a cow’s uterus during/after parturition grow where there is a combination of available moisture, heat and nutrients (manure). I know of several producers that routinely remove old bedding and re-bed with fresh cereal straw in these areas of their dry cow and lactation barn and thus have little problem with metritis.

I would advise any dairy producer whose cows exhibit significant metritis problems to talk to their veterinarian for more medical-related recommendations.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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