Navel ill occurs when bacteria find their way into the body of a calf through the broken, wet umbilical cord. At its outset, this infection is not too serious, at first causing a bit of lethargy in the calf. However, if navel ill is left untreated it can become a much worse problem. Calves with navel ill can develop septicemia, a systemic infection that can affect major organs, the brain, and the joints. Untreated, navel ill can lead to a previously healthy calf's death.
Like most illnesses in the cattle herd, navel ill is more easily prevented than treated. Doing work on the front end to prepare for calving and at birth can keep cattlemen from having an epidemic of calves with infected navels. Taking just a few precautions with calving cows and newborn calves can help avoid this illness.
1. Clean calving areas.
If your cows calve on clean, dry pasture, they are much less likely to have calves with navel infections. However, if you do have to have cows calving indoors, you should make doubly sure that the calving pens are as clean as possible. Before a cow calves in the barn, old bedding should be scooped out. If possible, spraying a pen with disinfectant can reduce the pathogens in the calving pen. Dirty bedding can contain bacteria that can contaminate the calves' navels. Additionally, bedding that is wet from urine will keep calves' umbilical cords from drying as quickly. In all cases, calving cows need a deep layer of fresh, clean bedding. This can prevent naval ill and a host of other infections in cows and in calves.
2. Use navel dips.
To make completely sure that the navel stump is disinfected, many cattle farmers dip the umbilical cord in iodine or other disinfectants. The cord should be completely saturated in iodine. Most farmers use a small jar or cup filled to the top with disinfectant and fully immerse the cord all the way up to the calf's belly. Calves with very thick cords or bull calves may need to be dipped several times in the first day of their lives. Additionally, farms that are having trouble with navel ill may want to dip more than once on all their calves. Iodine has a drying effect on the cord and will hasten the drying and shriveling of the umbilical cord.
3. Clean holding pens for young calves.
Many ranches have lots of calves being born over a period of just a few weeks. Frequently, cows and their newborn calves are moved from calving pens within a day of birth. Farmers should be diligent to move newborn calves with wet umbilical cords only to areas that have clean, dry bedding. Even if a calf's cord was dipped, it can still pick up navel ill until the cord is shriveled and dry.
4. Address Flies.
If you are calving in warm, Southern areas of the United States, flies can transmit navel ill from infected calves to healthy calves. Screwworm flies are often attracted to the moist tissue of a fresh cord. Stock men may want to consider moving their calving season back a few weeks to cooler weather when flies may not be as much of an issue. Additionally, normal parasite controls can help diminish fly populations in the herd.
5. Move calving season to a dry time of year.
Those who farm in areas that have very wet weather may have more instances of navel ill when cows are calving on damp or muddy ground. Sometimes, it may be difficult or impossible to keep barns and calving pens dry during wet weather, especially if the barn has an earthen floor. Farmers can back up their calving time just a few weeks to colder but drier months. Alternately, pushing calving time forward to drier, warmer months can avoid navel ill as well.
6. Ensure adequate colostrum intake.
Preventing navel ill is much easier if the calves have a strong immune system. No farmer can ever have an environment that is 100 percent free of bacteria. Making sure that calves are healthy by providing them with plenty of good quality colostrum can help them fight off bacteria that cause navel ill.