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Beef 911: Ways to reduce incidence of navel ill

You need to pay close attention to this costly problem and take steps to reduce it

Much has been written about omphalophlebitis — inflammation of the umbilical veins also known as navel ill — in calves.

The bovine species appears to be fairly susceptible to developing infection, with the incidence increasing when calves are born into wet or damp conditions and in close confinement. With more producers calving later — many times on grass — calves are spread out in a drier environment and that alone has greatly decreased the incidence of navel infection.

Other methods for preventing navel infection are ensuring colostral intake is high to boost the calves’ resistance and, in some cases, using long-acting prophylactic antibiotics prescribed by veterinarians for herds where the incidence is higher than normal.

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As a rule, we have a higher incidence in purebred herds where they calve early and when calves are cycled through a warm barn. This environment will allow foot rot and other types of organisms to accumulate over time.

It’s best to have a calving area, which can be disinfected easily, and only bring through those cows that really need assistance. Ideally, the calving maternity pen should have a cement floor and a drain so the area can be cleaned and disinfected easily after each use. I can’t stress enough the importance of having lots of bedding in the calving and post-calving areas and keeping the barns clean by using lots of fresh bedding. The extra work and cost will yield fewer diseases like navel infection.

Over the years I have tried many things to prevent this problem, even using human umbilical clamps (but I found they caused more problems than they prevented). One thing veterinarians have recognized with caesarean sections is that navel infection rates are higher. There is no stress on calves during a caesarean incision unless the intervention was delayed or a major attempt was made at pulling the calf. With a caesarean delivery, the calf is essentially coming out backwards and the navel cord rips off very close to the body (very similar to a normal backwards calf). The calf needs the long protective shroud of the umbilicus to prevent infection from wicking up inside.

There are a couple of ways to prevent this. At our clinic, when the calf is coming out through the incision, we grab and physically break the protective shroud quite a distance from the navel (12 to 16 inches). This is about the natural distance where the umbilicus breaks off.

Dr. Gordon Adkins at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine has a different method, which is equally effective, and a more natural recreation of the real event. As the calf is coming through the incision he pulls the entire umbilicus back between the back legs. This exactly mimics how the umbilicus breaks off in a normal delivery and he has had great success at this. Success meaning the umbilical shroud is intact and more than a foot long. This definitely prevents infection from wicking up inside.

I would recommend that if a caesarean section is required, mention this to your veterinarian. Both these methods are easy to do and will greatly decrease the incidence of navel infection in these calves.

If the navel still breaks off short or the calf flops out of the incision before this can be done, then perhaps put them on prophylactic antibiotics. With short navels this is one incidence where I recommend possibly disinfecting the navel area. Just make sure and use something recommended by your veterinarian that is not too harsh. Strong iodine solutions, for instance, cause more inflammation actually worsening the condition. This is one reason why we don’t recommend any routine treatment directly on the navel.

Our next issue to tackle is backwards-presented calves which, as you may guess, rip off short as well. Generally these births are being assisted, but the question is, how do we break off the shroud internally without breaking the vessels, as the calf still has to be delivered? That is a question for the future as these backwards calves may have delayed deliveries, sometimes lack oxygen, and are slower to rise and suckle — all factors predisposing them to navel infection.

Remember too that with a high percentage of twin births that one calf is often backwards. Twins have the challenge of sharing the available colostrum. Will both twins mother up or will you graft a twin onto another cow? All these stresses also make them more prone to navel infection, scours, pneumonia et cetera, and for that reason are often supplemented with extra colostrum.

Whether it is calves that are lost or develop joint infections and must be put down or calves with a slight pus discharge from the area, all are losses to the beef industry. The calves with lingering infections have poorer weight gains and some yearling bulls have developed infections in their secondary sex glands (seminal vesiculitis) from navel infection rendering them infertile. All of these are good reasons to try and keep navel infections down on your farm.

I will keep you posted if we find a way to break the navel shroud internally on those backwards calves. In the meantime, I would recommend talking to your veterinarian about prophylactic antibiotics on those backwards calves or any with the navel ripped off short. Closely examine the navel cord on newborn calves to see what I mean. In some herds with higher incidences, veterinarians prescribe antibiotics at birth to help prevent navel infections.

So have a great calving season with the minimum of problems and a very low death rate. And let’s keep navel infection to a minimum.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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