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Six Steps to Good Navel Care in Calves


On most farms shed space is at a premium at calving time and getting some of the first calved cows out to grass is key to relieving the pressure on sheds, unfortunately the wet conditions have not allowed this. Martina Harrington, Teagasc Beef Specialist, warns that this can increase navel ill cases

It has been a tough start to the calving season. On most farms shed space is at a premium at calving time and getting a couple of those first calved cows out to grass is key to relieving the pressure on sheds, unfortunately the wet conditions have not allowed this. The extra moisture has also meant more dampness in sheds and more of a drain on straw reserves. All these issues combined can lead to a much higher incidence of navel ill in calves.

The Navel

While in the womb, the umbilical cord is the vital link providing nutrition from the mother to the foetus. However, once the calf is born and on the ground the navel is probably its greatest threat.  The navel is a gateway for bacteria and disease that exist in the calf’s environment to enter the calf’s body. From there it can enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body. 

The fact calves are born without a developed immune system does not help. They depend on getting the antibodies provided in their mother’s colostrum to fight off infection until they start to develop their own immune system at 3-4 weeks of age. (Picture right:  courtesy of Progressive Dairy Canada)

Therefore, to avoid navel ill in calves we have to reduce the chance of the navel being infected while also ensuring the calf gets enough colostrum packed full of antibodies to help it fight of infection. So hygiene and colostrum management are key, Follow the six steps below:

Step 1:  Clean Housing

The calf's environment needs to be as clean and dry as possible. From the calving pen where the calf spends the first couple of hours of life, to the loose house/lie back area to slats, anywhere the calf has access to needs to be clean, clean, clean. Lime slats and keep plenty of straw under them.

Clean calving pens between calvings, lime and bed with plenty of straw. This will reduce the build of bugs in the shed and minimise the risk of the calf being exposed to any harmful pathogens.  

Step 2:  Clean Cows

If your cow is dirty, there is more of a chance of the calf coming in contact with dirt. To avoid this keep any slatted areas clean and limed, if cows are on straw bed them well.  Trim around the tail and flank of any dirty cows a couple of weeks before calving. If possible, move the cow to the calving pen 2 - 3 days before calving to give her time to clean off. When your calf starts to suck you don’t want it to suck in dirt.

Step 3:  Clean Farmer

As you will be handling the newborn calf with no immunity, you need to make sure you are not the source of infection. Always have clean clothes or a wear a clean pair of overalls. Ensure your hands are clean or wear disposable gloves when handling the navel.

Step 4:  Navel Dipping/spraying

Navel dips serve two primary functions,

  1. To disinfect the navel
  2. Promote drying and healing of the umbilical cord.

They need to be applied within 15 minutes of birth and ideally again 1-2 hours later. Ensure to get good coverage of the navel especially at the end where the cord has been severed. Your aim is to get the navel to dry and close as soon as possible to prevent infection getting in. There are two products used, Iodine at 7-10% and Chlorhexidine. If the products are stored and applied properly, they are both effective. The container should be sealed and never contaminated with organic matter. 

If you do find one is not working change to the other. Some may find cows licking the navel when iodine is used and be fearful she will damage the calf, if this is the case, switch to the chlorhexidine and check your cows to see if you have an iodine deficiency.

Dip vs Spray

Both dips and sprays work well as long as

  1. You take the time to cover the whole navel from the end of the cord right up to the belly
  2. You use plenty of the product
  3. The product has been stored properly and is free of contamination

The issue with the dips maybe if you are using the same container and not emptying and cleaning it between animals. This may mean that the product is no longer effective and worse if there are bugs on the dip cup you can be the source of bugs entering the navel. Some farmers have started to use disposable cups, you fill the cup, dip the navel, throw out the rest of the product and the cup so you minimise the risk of infecting the navel. 

With the spray the issue is often you only spray in around the belly and forget the rest of the cord, so you now have an open-ended cord that is not treated. The other is you do not use enough product. You need to ensure to get the end of the navel and use plenty of product.

In short, both work well if used properly.

Step 5:  Colostrum

A calf is born with an under developed immune system. It is dependent on getting the antibodies in its mother’s colostrum to fight off infection. We all know to have adequate protection the quality of the colostrum has to be good and the calf has to get enough of it, three litres. But what is often less talked about is that we also have to give the calf the colostrum as soon as possible after birth, preferably within two hours. Why?

  1. When the calf is born the lining in the stomach is porous to allow the antibodies pass through. However as time passes the lining begins to close. It is most porous in the first two hours of life, after that there is a sharp drop off up to 6 hours and every hour after that the lining becomes less and less porous to 24 hours after birth to when the lining is now closed.
  2. The quality of the colostrum begins to reduce after birth. As the cow begins to produce more milk she dilutes the concentration of antibodies in the colostrum.

Therefore we need to follow the 1,2,3 of colostrum. Feed 3 litres of the first milk (colostrum) to the calf within 2 hours of birth.

Remember, if the lining is porous to allow the antibodies through, bacteria can also pass through, so again hygiene is key here to reduce the build-up of bugs in the calf’s environment.

Step 6:  Monitoring

It is hard to see if you have an issue with navel ill without handling the calf. While being safe, using a clean hand check the navel. See if it is painful to touch, if it is enlarged or if there is pus coming from it, if so, you have an issue. Treatment is usually a 5-7 day course of penicillin but you will need to talk to your vet. 

The extent of your issue will depend on if you have one calf or several calves with navel ill and at what stage of the calving season you are. You will then have to assess the hygiene in your shed and your colostrum management with your vet or advisor.

For more information check out the Teagasc webpage on Health at Calving