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Tips to prevent navel infection, without dipping

Navel infection (omphalitis) can often become a chronic debilitating problem in newborn calves. Once infected, treatment is often long term and can be unrewarding. The initial cause is bacteria invading the umbilical cord resulting in infection right at the umbilical stump. The two arteries, two veins and urachus (duct leading from the fetal bladder) all can serve as a wick for infection to enter the calf’s body. Once this happens large abscesses are created in these areas draining to the outside, or infection enters the bloodstream and often can localize in the joints. These infections become very difficult to treat. Blood supply is poor so most antibiotics don’t achieve high levels in the joints.

Prevention is paramount to minimize the number of cases or decrease their severity.

Three main causes

Three very important contributing causes are:

1. weak calves from prolonged calving or poor nutrition of the dam.

2. poor hygiene (dirty calving areas and overhandling the navel when weighing).

3. inadequate colostral intake (need at least 1-1/2 to two litres in first eight hours).

When evaluating your own operation carefully look at these three causes. Calving with contractions evident should result in a calf born in no longer than 1-1/2 to two hours. If not make sure she is assisted. REMEMBER, a slow gentle pull in time with the cow’s contractions is far better than rapidly pulling, and it is also much less damaging. Make sure mineral status especially selenium, vitamins E and A is adequate for a pregnant cow in order that calves get up quick and suckle. Proper bull selection especially for heifers minimizes birth weight resulting in livelier offspring.

Start calving on a fresh area with bedding, which has not been used since last year. Straw is still ideal. I have encountered more problems with wood chips causing trauma to the navel area and the chips harbour more bacteria. Evaluate the source of bedding material saving the very best for the calving season — the newborns deserve it.

Your maternity area, calf puller, chains, and sling ideally should all be disinfected regularly.

I see far too many badly contaminated pullers, especially the breech area and producers using no gloves on obstetrical cases. This all serves as a source of contamination to the calf. For producers, especially purebred operators who often weigh their calves shortly after birth, be especially diligent on cleaning the sling. This area has much contact with the navel area. I’ve even had operators cut out a large circular area in the sling to prevent this contact.

Another idea is to weigh at 24 hours of age when the umbilicus has started to dry up somewhat. Some larger producers even use walk-on scales to avoid contact totally.


With disinfection arises the controversial topic of navel dipping. Most veterinary practices don’t encourage it for several reasons.

1. Navels are often over handled by unclean hands resulting in further contamination.

2. The disinfectants can be over harsh such as creolin or high concentrations of iodine, which greatly inflame the area.

3. The disinfectant itself may become contaminated when applicators such as teat dip containers are used.

4. Often calves are not treated till one day of age when any contamination would have already occurred making treatment a futile effort.

Most veterinarians would NOT recommend any navel treatment at birth, in fact as stated, it may even be harmful. Producers who might be inclined to treat the navel, and have a low incidence of infection, are probably looking after calf health, colostral intake and hygiene and most likely could stop the process with no detrimental consequences.


There is definitely an increased incidence of navel infection found in both backwards and caesarian derived calves. This occurs because the umbilicus rips off abnormally short with these deliveries exposing the area. Some veterinarians are now purposely ripping the navel shroud long on C-section deliveries to try and minimize the possibility of navel infection developing.

If infection is anticipated, prophylactic, long-acting antibiotics may be prescribed. We also experience a higher incidence where calves are more likely to be cycled through a warm (above freezing) barn in early spring. The warm temperatures allow bacterial multiplication. These herd managers again may be advised to give prophylactic antibiotics during this period. Bull calves appear more susceptible as well since the prepuce is in close proximity keeping the area moist with urine.

Even with all these precautions the odd navel infection may still result. Pulling off the old cord if still present to allow drainage cleansing and long-term antibiotics may prove successful. Surgery can be done in severe cases to remove the infected stalk. Purebred breeders need to be cautious of any yearling bulls with a past history of navel problems as these may seed out into the internal secondary sex glands rendering them infertile.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you avoid any navel problems in this springs calf crop. †

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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