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Managing retained fetal membranes

Noelia Silva del Rio Published on 27 April 2010


The placenta is the membrane that connects the fetus with the dam. The button-like structures of the placenta (cotyledons) connect with the caruncles of the uterus (see Figure 1). It is through these unions (placentomas) that nutrients are transferred from the mother to the calf.



After a normal calving, the fetal membranes will be expelled within 30 minutes to 8 hours. If the fetal membranes have not been released after 12 hours, the cow will have a condition known as retained fetal membranes (RFM).

Retained fetal membranes by itself is not a problem; however it may lead to uterine contamination. For example, when the cow lies down, the placenta hangs further out of her body and touches dirty stalls and corrals loaded with bacteria. When the cow stands and walks, the contaminated tissue is pulled back into the uterus. A cow with RFM is five to seven times more likely to have metritis (uterine infection), and her pregnancy rate decreases by approximately 15 percent.

Furthermore, cows with RFM are more susceptible to suffer ketosis, displaced abomasums and being culled earlier. The cost of each RFM is estimated at over $300.

Overall, the incidence of RFM is 8 percent; however, it ranges from 3 to 40 percent across herds. If your herd has an incidence of RFM above 10 percent, you should be looking closely into this problem. On the other hand, if the incidence of RFM is too low in your herd, you should ensure that postpartum checks and record keeping are being done properly.

Several factors have been associated with increased risk of RFM. The most important are listed below:
• Mechanical factors: difficult birth (dystocia), twins, stillborn, abortion
• Nutritional factors: mineral and vitamin deficiency, low levels of calcium in blood
• Management factors: stress, obesity
• Infectious diseases: Brucellosis, Leptospirosis, IBR, BVD


After a normal calving, the immune system recognizes the fetal cotyledons as foreign bodies and attacks them. The unions between cotyledons and caruncles are destroyed and the fetal membranes are expelled. However, when the immune system is weakened, it fails to degrade those unions and RFM occurs.

There are several very important factors for a good immune response that should be taken into consideration to prevent RFM:
• Calcium blood levels: check the dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD).
• Dietary minerals and vitamins: ensure the dry cow ration is properly balanced.
• Bodyweight loss: during close-up of the dry period, provide easy access to fresh palatable food to stimulate appetite.
• Quality silages: mold and mycotoxins impair the immune response.
• Stress: avoid situations that stress animals close to calving such as pen movements, diet changes and noises.

Treating cows immediately after calving with oxytocin, prostaglandin or calcium has shown poor results on RFM prevention. However, once the cow has RFM, there is something very important that you can do – clean and comfortable bedding is critical to ensure minimal bacterial contamination of the fetal membranes and the uterus.

Manual removal of the fetal membranes is not advised. Postpartum, the uterine walls are thin and fragile, and manipulation of the uterus may cause harm. Trimming out the fetal membranes may decrease the dirt caught by the fetal membranes; however, the pulling force of the fetal membranes’ weight will be lost. Retained fetal membranes ends up in metritis in 25 to 50 percent of cases.

Metritis may require antibiotic treatment and rehydration; you should seek advice from your veterinarian to establish a metritis treatment protocol.

Cows with RFM normally drop the fetal membranes within a week. The best approach in a RFM case is to watch the cow closely. It is very important to remember that if she is not sick – do not treat, and if she is sick, seek advice from your veterinarian. PD


Excerpts from University of California Dairy Newsletter, January 2010

Noelia Silva del Rio