Preventing navel infections in newborn calves

A navel cord is a highway into a calf’s bloodstream. Proper management of the navel right after birth can ensure a calf gets off to an infection‐free start.

The umbilical cord is made up of blood vessels that, after calving, remain like hollow tubes where bacteria can enter the calf, and get into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria can circulate throughout the calf’s body, causing diseases like septicemia (blood infection), meningitis (brain infection) and arthritis (“joint ill”, swollen joints).

Preventing navel infections in newborn calvesNavel problems include wet navels, navel infections, and/or umbilical hernias. Navels that don’t dry up are often infected. Infection enlarges the navel cord and impedes the closure of the opening into the calf’s abdomen. If the opening is big enough, the calf’s intestine can herniate (protrude through the opening). This is called an umbilical hernia. Herniation may damage the bowel. Some small hernias eventually close on their own; however larger ones require treatment or even surgery to fix them. Management at calving is the key to avoiding navel issues. Often keeping the bedding in the calving area dry and dipping the calf’s navel in disinfectant right after birth solves navel‐related problems. A clean calving area reduces the exposure of the navel area to bacteria in manure, urine and dirt. Dipping the navel right after birth dries it out, helps the large blood vessels to close and kills any bacteria already present. Repeated dipping of enlarged cords over the first few days of life is a good practice. Ensuring everyone handling calves knows what to look for and knows to check the navels routinely can help with early detection of navel problems.

It is recommended that calves need to be at least seven days old and have a dry navel before they are moved from the home farm to a sales barn. Sending calves that are too young or have wet and infected navels to a livestock auction is a welfare issue. A poor start greatly affects the future health and productivity of these calves and the reputation of your farm.

“There are no problems with the vast majority of calves, but we do see calves every week with navels that haven’t healed yet,” explains Mike Draper, Livestock Community Sales Co‐ordinator with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “It’s not a good idea to bring calves to a sale facility with navel cords that aren’t healed yet as it significantly increases the risk to the calf, allowing bacteria to travel up the navel cord. They are more likely to get ill.”

Calves that do show up for sale with any of these navel conditions run the risk of being returned to the producer, treated at the sale facility at the producer’s expense, or, in worst cases, humanely euthanized if they’re found to be too sick to recover.

“Good navel management is important all year round and it comes down to proper monitoring and management on the farm,” Draper adds. “It is well worth investing the time and effort in a good calf management system. It’s the right thing to do for the welfare of the calf”.

Here’s what you can do to ensure you’re shipping healthy calves with clean, dry navels:

Environment:

  • Have a clean calving area to minimize the risk of infection. Once a calf can breathe easily, it should be moved to an area of the pen with clean bedding that is not accessible to the cow. This could be a corner of the pen separated by a low (three to four foot) gate or a Rubbermaid tub – both are high enough to prevent a calf from climbing out but low enough for the cow to reach over and lick it off. Using this area will limit calf exposure to manure, urine and dirt.
  • Feed all newborn calves’ adequate amounts of good quality colostrum, with the first feed occurring within two hours of birth. Each calf needs to be offered about 15 per cent of its bodyweight in colostrum the first day divided into first and second feedings. This provides them with rapid immunity that protects them against bacterial infections that can start from infected navels. Contact your veterinarian to make a plan for colostrum feeding – not all calves drink the same amount in early life. You need a plan to cover off what you will do for calves that are reluctant to suck.
  • Feed transition milk during the first three days of life. It’s higher in fat and protein as well as other nutrients for newborn calves.
  • Keep calves on clean, dry bedding. This is especially important for calves without an external umbilical cord.

Navel dipping:

  • Remove any debris or straw on the navel cord and dip it immediately, once the calf is breathing well on its own. Re‐check it in 24 hours to make sure the umbilical cord is drying up and that there are no navel infections or hernias. Re‐dip the navel if necessary.
  • Tincture of iodine (at least seven per cent iodine) should be used for dipping. The alcohol in the solution (the “tincture”) will help dry out the cord.
    • Don’t use a diluted iodine solution such as teat dip as those won’t offer the level of protection a calf needs. They also contain substances that will prevent drying.
  • When “dipping”, immerse the full length of the cord in the solution, right up to the calf’s belly. Use a fresh disposable paper cup per calf or a non‐return teat dip cup for dipping to avoid disease transmission between animals.
  • Clean all cups well between uses.
  • Store cups in a clean area near the calving pen and cover the cups between uses.
  • Change the dipping solution after five calves or two days, whichever comes first.
  • Don’t use a spray ‐ it won’t cover the full cord area, nor travel up the openings of the blood vessels as well as a dipped product will.

Management:

  • Check the navel area at least once daily for the first week until the navel cord heals and dries.
    • Palpate the navel to check for swelling or pain that might indicate the presence of infection. There
      should be no drainage or foul smell, nor should palpation cause a painful response from the calf.
    • A navel is considered dry when the full length of the cord, to the junction of the skin of the abdomen
      of the calf, is dry, inflexible and shriveled1.

Ensure you have a protocol in place to deal with enlarged or infected navels. Work with your veterinarian to write a treatment plan for this condition. Follow the protocols they recommend. Treat calves with infected navels promptly.

Thank you to Dr. Ann Godkin from Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) for her contribution to this important topic.

1Drying times of umbilical cords of dairy calves, Australian Veterinary Journal