Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0408 PD: Use a fresh cow protocol to monitor disease

Mark Kirkpatrick Published on 27 February 2008

Fresh cows represent the greatest income potential for dairy operations. But fresh cows can be fragile cows.

Just when they’re ramping for the run to hit peak milk production, they’re also at the greatest risk of getting sick or crashing. That’s why a good fresh cow management program is critical to the success – and profitability – of your dairy. When fresh cows are kept healthy and comfortable, you’ll benefit from increased performance and revenue.



Once dairies start routine fresh cow monitoring, they rarely abandon the procedure because the payoffs are so readily apparent. Among those rewards are:

(1) early detection of potentially serious diseases and more timely therapy,
(2) protection of cows as they enter their most productive and profitable stage of lactation,
(3) prevention of future reproductive problems,
(4) fewer secondary diseases like displaced abomasum (DA) and ketosis because cows are identified and treated before they go off feed and
(5) reduced culling and death loss in the first 60 days of lactation.

Proper fresh cow monitoring involves a thorough evaluation of all cows in the fresh pen with active involvement of your veterinarian. A valuable and efficient system used to monitor fresh cow health is using a two-person team to observe both the front and back of the cow for signs of sickness and take daily temperature checks for 10 days.

The benefit of using teamwork when evaluating the health of fresh cows is clear – by doing this, fewer symptoms slip by. One member of a two-man team should monitor the front of the cow for signs of distress or disease, and the second team member should do the same, at the rear of the cow. The cow benefits from the observation of two practiced individuals and the people benefit from a more efficient approach.

Consistent observation, communication between team members and accurate record keeping are keys to ensuring the health of fresh cows and maintaining the productivity of the dairy.


Working together
Talk with your teammate and clearly communicate what you see as you examine the cow. At the head of the cow, evaluate the cow’s attitude, appetite, ear carriage and temperature, eyes and nasal discharge. Behind the cow, evaluate the cow’s temperature, breathing rate, vaginal discharge, manure, udder fill and tail carriage.

Assessing attitude
A cow’s attitude can be assessed by watching for signs of depression, such as discharge from the nose, which indicates either respiratory disease or a cow that is depressed enough not to groom her nose. Also, some cows may be reluctant to lock up in a headlock due to unfamiliarity or illness. These cows should also be closely evaluated.

Assessing appetite
Feed the cattle in the fresh pen prior to starting the daily fresh cow procedures. This will give the cows time to start eating. Compare individual cow consumption with her neighbors. Has she eaten, and if so, how much? Is she eating at normal levels compared to her neighbors? Any cow not eating should have a complete physical exam.

Assessing eyes
Watch for sunken, dull and crusty eyes on all fresh cows. Are her eyes runny? Is there crust build-up? If a cow has these signs, she could be dehydrated or indicating a pain response.

Assessing ears
Another sign of the overall attitude and health of a cow are the carriage and temperature of the ears. Always compare one cow’s ears against her neighbor’s ears through both observation and touch. This helps you adjust your perceptions against the influences of temperature within the pen. Drooping ears indicate that the animal may be exhibiting depression due to illness. Cold ears may indicate the possibility of subclinical hypocalcemia.

Check temperature
It’s important to monitor temperatures for up to 10 days after calving. Fever is one of the first signs of severe metritis postpartum, and its symptoms often surface 24 to 36 hours before other signs. A post-treatment fever is important to manage carefully, as fever will not necessarily drop quickly after the treatment is administered. Temperatures should be in a range between 101degrees F and 103 degrees F.


A temperature greater than 103 degrees F may be indicative of metritis that could warrant therapy. Remember, once therapy is initiated it is a matter of having both the proper dose and duration. Do not stop therapy just because the fever has gone down the next day.

Look at discharge
It’s normal for a cow to have uterine discharge for approximately two weeks after calving. Uterine discharge should always be evaluated for color and odor when the rest of the cow is being checked. Dark red and foul-smelling discharge is a sign of uterine infection, but reddish-brown discharge without a smell is normal after calving. Some cows may not spike a temperature even though they have a very foul and dark red discharge. These cattle may have a depressed immune system that doesn’t recognize the infection and may need therapy.

Retained placenta
Any portion of afterbirth retained past 12 hours after calving is considered “retained placenta.” A cow that does not show signs of fever, goes off feed, is down in milk production or has an odorous or discolored discharge is classified as a “simple retained placenta” and should be handled as little as possible.

Never attempt to manually remove retained placenta as it can cause permanent damage to the uterus, resulting in reduced fertility. It can also cause uterine hemorrhage or infection through contamination.

Udder fill
The fullness of the udder is a good indication of how well the cow is feeding and producing milk. Compare udders of cows in the pen to see if an individual cow’s udder fill is abnormal or within the average range. Also, assess the level of udder fill within the entire fresh cow pen.

Evaluate manure
By assessing manure, caretakers can understand internal infectious or metabolic disorders with fresh cows. Key items to keep in mind when evaluating include consistency, appearance and odor. A watery or fluid consistency, evidence of blood or a fetid smell could be an indication of disease.

Observe tail carriage
A raised tail head and straining can be a sign of uterine inflammation and potentially an aggressive metritis. Another situation resulting in raised tail heads is vaginal tearing. This can happen when calving crews do not allow enough time for cows and heifers to dilate and deliver or when a cow or heifer gives birth to a very large calf.

Implementing a fresh cow protocol
Evaluating fresh cows is a combination of repeatable observations, teamwork and standardized treatment protocols. Beyond monitoring cows for 10 days after freshening, keys to an effective fresh cow program also involve good nutrition, proper diagnosis, early intervention and fast, effective treatment through the appropriate dose and duration of product. Always consult your veterinarian before executing treatment.

Your cows and your milk tank will benefit from implementing a consistent fresh cow monitoring program. Having a regular protocol in place will create a baseline and help identify susceptible cows quicker and easier. Cows will experience reduced postpartum infection, fewer secondary diseases such as ketosis and fewer health conditions such as displaced abomasums. There will be fewer culls, increased milk production and better reproduction – all resulting in increased revenue. PD

Mark Kirkpatrick
Pfizer Animal Health