About six months into her lactation, I noticed that my milk cow Sandy was looking a little shaky at morning milking. When I brought her in for evening milking, she was unsteady on her feet, she was dozy and not very alert, and her flanks were quivering – all clear signs of the early onset of milk fever, or hypocalcemia.
Milk fever is a form of paralysis brought on by elevated calcium demands, and most generally occurs at the onset of lactation. Though a cow is particularly susceptible to it in the first week or so after calving as her milk comes in, she may exhibit symptoms at any point in her lactation.
When Sandy showed signs of milk fever, even though she was months into her lactation and we had recently weaned her calf, we gave her a tube of calcium gel right away. Often labeled CMPK gel (as it often contains magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous in addition to calcium), you can find it at your local feed store. It comes in a long white tube, similar to a tube of caulk.
To administer, have someone hold her head up high and insert the tube in the very corner of her mouth, pushing it down past her tongue into her throat. Elevating her head ensures that the gel goes into her stomach and not her lungs, and pushing it past her tongue ensures she can’t spit it back out again.
After administering the gel (which was the surest, quickest thing I knew for sure to do), I called the vet. After talking him through her symptoms, he confirmed that she did, indeed, seem to have milk fever. I was flummoxed since she was so far along in her lactation, but he assured me it was normal and even expected.
Then of course, I was worried about prevention. What had I done wrong? How could I make sure this didn’t happen again? I was surprised to hear that what I had just done WAS milk fever prevention. Sandy was on good green grass, had plenty of fresh water, and free choice access to minerals. I still thought I should have done something more or different, but it turns out no. Sometimes cows just experience a rapid deletion of calcium – perhaps the weather, perhaps her cycle, perhaps hormones associated with weaning.
Whatever the cause, administering calcium gel at the first sign of trouble IS the prevention. And, for maximum effectiveness, you need to administer two doses 12 hours apart.
For this reason, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND keeping at least one tube of calcium gel on hand at all times. If you’re concerned about her symptoms, give her a gel. It has absolutely no ill-effects and the additional vitamins can’t hurt her. If it turns out she didn’t need it, no harm done – and if she did, you’ve just prevented a much bigger problem.
If your cow is DOWN with milk fever and can’t get up, the situation is much more serious. She’ll need an IV or liquid drench of 500ml Calcium Gluconate. She’ll be able to metabolize the calcium much more quickly in that format – critical at this point in her care. Call your vet immediately.
For more information on diagnosing and treating milk fever and other common milk cow ailments, I recommend Keeping a Family Cow by Joann S. Groman.