Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Navel warfare: The first battle to win for newborn calves

Sue Karges Published on 03 November 2015
new calf

Navel dipping, arguably the very first husbandry act in a dairy calf’s life, is not only the least costly investment in its entire life cycle, but also the most cost-effective management tool to ensure a healthy animal is positioned to succeed.

The umbilical remnant or “navel cord” is the calf’s lifeline to its mother prior to birth. The three key connectors in the cord are the umbilical arteries, umbilical vein and the urachus (a tube from the calf’s bladder). Blood is constantly exchanged from the cow and calf for nourishment, and excretions such as urine from the calf are returned to the cow for elimination. At calving, the cord is severed, and the internal parts of these tubes are retracted into the calf’s abdomen, leaving the navel cord an empty tube that dries up during the calf’s first week of life.



Immediately after birth, the canal is a direct opening into the calf’s bloodstream and body; it is an invitation to bacterial organisms that can lead to navel infection. Navel infection is a condition that rapidly deteriorates into sepsis (bacteria in the bloodstream). Sepsis spreads bacteria throughout the calf’s body, leading to liver abscesses (chronic poor doer), joint illness, loss of appetite, fever, depression, shock and death.

Other infectious opportunists waiting to invade untreated calves can include pathogens such as rotavirus, salmonella, E. coli and cryptosporidium – all biological enemies of newborn calves that count for huge treatment costs and compromised performance of survivors. Some research numbers suggest at least a 14-percent increase in pneumonia and up to an 11-percent increase in death loss in untreated calves. (That would be five dead calves per 100 born).

Costs of treatment of affected calves can rapidly add up. Sepsis treatments include penicillin G, ceftiofur or Banamine. Beyond the cost of the drugs, extra management and treatments are labor-intensive and cause stress on the animals that is hard to recover from. Mortality that occurs months and sometimes years after birth is, in many cases, caused by a navel infection.

On the flip side, properly treating the umbilical cord and navel at birth has been consistently proven to greatly reduce complications of navel infection. The time-honored method of treatment is to simply dip the navel stump in a strong tincture of iodine as soon as possible after birth. The alcohol in the iodine also adds a drying factor to seal up and more rapidly dry out the live opening into the calf’s bloodstream. “Double dipping,” where the calf’s navel stump is dipped a second time 12 to 18 hours after birth, is even better.

With such a simple solution to alleviate later cost and management complications, it would seem that all producers would be currently engaged in the practice of dipping the calf’s navel in iodine promptly after it is born. But in a USDA study, researchers found only 47 percent of calves were being dipped. Although iodine is the current industry standard treatment, there is a lack of agreement on how strong a tincture of iodine should be. Values range from a 2 percent to 7 percent tincture. Sources agree that leaving an umbilical stump of about 6 inches gives the best outcomes for ease of treatment and drying up.


A relatively new complication to using iodine as a treatment for navel dipping comes from a historically unforeseen source. There is a rise in methamphetamine production, which unfortunately uses iodine as a critical component. In a 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the bad news was discussed thoroughly. The short version is that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) moved iodine from being listed as a commonly available list 2 chemical, to a much more regulated list 1 chemical. They now regulate any iodine tincture or solution (mixed with any other ingredients) that has more than 2.2 percent iodine.

According to the article, most veterinarians are already covered to handle list 1 chemicals, but other “handlers” who conduct transactions with higher tinctures of iodine have an increased burden of record keeping and responsibility for possession and distribution. Also, they are subject to inspection by the DEA. A broader description of responsibilities of “handlers of iodine” is found in a December 2011 DEA Notice. At this time, iodine chemical mixtures with tinctures that are more than 2.2 percent also fall under the same conditions of regulation and verification. The concern remains that iodine may continue to become more regulated and scrutinized; however, research still strongly supports the need for dipping newborn calves.

Alternatives to 7 percent iodine are emerging and available for livestock producers. Some product examples include Triodine 7, a 2.4 percent titratable iodine that complies with DEA iodine regulations and no registration is required; Navel-Guard, a purified water, acidified water and isopropyl alcohol product; and Super 7+ Navel Dip, a product that has no iodine or alcohol.

The simple procedure of navel dipping yields a return on investment that stands alone as the least expensive, yet most effective, offensive tactical weapon producers can implement. There are very few factors in animal production that are this easy, inexpensive and proven to yield such significant measurable results in the battle to win consistent animal health.  PD

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Sue Karges is a freelance writer focused on agriculture, specializing in ranch, farm, livestock, equine, rodeo and the feed industry.


PHOTO: Staff photo.