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Tips for managing milk fever

Back in the day when people farmed to feed themselves as well as make a living, everyone had a milk cow. As little as 20 years ago people were still shipping cream from as few as five cows to help with the monthly bills. Then big business got involved. Now the people with a burning desire to have their very own milk cow come from many backgrounds, but few grew up with dairying.

I understand this desire because it is how we have managed to feed our family and get ahead with our farm. We have milked some type of animal since 1995 and fed everything from baby calves to pigs on our surplus milk. We were extremely blessed to have a neighbour that used to ship cream so getting educated on the care of a dairy animal was easy. Our first milk cow was a Jersey.

Others who are increasingly interested in owning milk animals again are livestock producers wanting to avoid milk replacers. Producers were leery about milk replacer ingredients so the logical choice was to have a few milk cows for nurse cows. From a cost basis, dairy cows are well worth keeping. Our cows cost approximately $500 a year for feed and veterinary care. Their own calves should bring us that much income at the year end. Then if we were able to use surplus milk to feed another two calves each for the summer, the income from those calves would be profit.

For all the positives that could be listed about including dairy animals in a livestock operation there are also negatives. The most common issue we help people through is treatment for milk fever.


Milk fever (hypocalcaemia) occurs when a cow is unable to meet the calcium demand for colostrum and milk production. Milk fever is also a possibility for beef cows, sheep and goats.

There are three stages of milk fever, based on clinical signs. Stage One milk fever often goes unobserved because of its short duration (< 1 hour). Signs observed during this stage include loss of appetite, excitability, nervousness, hypersensitivity, weakness, weight shifting, and shuffling of the hind feet.

Clinical signs of Stage Two milk fever can last from one to 12 hours. The affected animal may turn its head into its flank or may extend its neck. When looking at an animal from the rear her neck will take on an “S” shape. The animal appears dull and listless; she has cold ears and a dry nose; she staggers when walking; and muscles trembling and quivering are evident. Other signs observed during Stage Two are an inactive digestive tract and constipation. A decrease in body temperature is common, usually ranging from 96 F to 100 F. The heart rate will be rapid exceeding 100 beats per minute.

Stage Three milk fever is characterized by the animal’s inability to stand and a progressive loss of consciousness leading to a coma. Heart sounds become nearly inaudible and the heart rate increases to 120 beats per minute or more. Cows in Stage Three will not survive for more than a few hours without treatment.

Ensuring cows can mobilize calcium efficiently in the early stages of lactation will improve your herd’s overall health status, and your farm’s bottom line. The most critical period for a dairy cow is the transition from late gestation to early lactation. In these five to six weeks many changes trigger substantial hormonal changes. At the same time, the cow’s metabolism diverts nutrients toward milk production. To further complicate the early transition period, her feed intake is at its lowest around calving time, and will not reach its maximum until several weeks after she freshens.


Our veterinarian has recommended we feed absolutely no feeds containing calcium during this period. It is very easy for a dry cow to meet calcium needs from feed. Our vet’s theory is if we can push the cow to start taking her calcium from her body instead of her feed early, then we have a better chance of a smooth transition from dry to milking.

The next part of the protocol is calcium paste that is administered orally within six hours of calving. Only take the amount of colostrum needed for the calf. The calf is not left with the cow since taking more colostrum may lead to a calcium deficiency. At each milking we take a bit more and we continue with calcium supplementation along with increasing the calcium in her feed until she exhibits no milk fever symptoms. We have also been experimenting with a transition cow feed purchased from a local dairy supply. Probably the most important part of managing milk fever though is a working relationship with a veterinarian.

We have had a beef heifer down after calving that wouldn’t even try and get up. We were standing behind her and noticed the “S” neck. Her ears were also cold. We gave her a dose of oral calcium paste and she was up and bright within 10 minutes. It is truly amazing to watch the immediate success of the treatment.

When purchasing a dairy animal finds out if they have had to be treated for milk fever before. If so, then be prepared. With a bit of preparation and taking the time to study your animal’s behaviour milk fever can be easily managed. It is well worth taking the time to learn how to manage milk producing animals on the farm. †

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