A case of ketosis comes with a cost, but it is possible to manage this metabolic disease to minimize its impact on dairy herds.

Coffeen peggy
Coffeen was a former editor and podcast host with Progressive Dairy. 

According to Heather White, assistant professor of nutritional physiology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison Department of Dairy Science, failure to detect and treat hyperketonemia can result in nearly a $300 loss per event.

“There is a value to detecting early and treating,” White told dairy producers at the Professional Dairy Producers Transition Cow Workshop held in December in Appleton, Wisconsin.

White referred to ketosis (both clinical and subclinical) as the condition when a cow’s blood beta hydroxybutyrate (BHBA) level reaches or exceeds 1.2 mmol per liter, indicating high levels of blood ketones. Gone untreated, these cows risk severe disadvantages in health, performance and productive life. Ketotic cows are:

  • Three times more likely to develop a displaced abomasum

  • 50 times more likely to be culled within the first 30 days in milk

  • Less likely to settle on the first breeding service

  • Produce less milk in the first 30 days in milk

White shared how she and her research team are digging into this detrimental metabolic disease to learn better ways to manage it and reduce its negative effects:


1. Body condition scores matter

Manage body condition score, particularly loss of conditioning during transition. Over-conditioned cows have more adipose tissue to metabolize during periods of negative energy balance, which can lead to greater non-esterified fatty acids and stress on the liver, White explained.

Heavy cows that score 4.0 or greater (on the 1-through-5 body condition score scale) at 28 days post-calving had greater maximum BHBA levels, as did cows that lost 1 or more body condition units throughout the transition period and into early lactation. This occurred even in cows starting out with a more moderate body condition score.

2. Feed ammoniated condensed whey or choline

Nutritional strategies can support metabolism and milk production while reducing ketosis risk. Feeding lactate in the form of ammoniated condensed whey could provide intermediates to the liver for metabolism without disrupting the rumen pH balance.

Studies also show rumen-protected choline decreases accumulation of fat in the liver. An analysis of several transition cow research studies shows increases in dry matter intake, milk and components among cows that consumed rumen-protected choline.

3. Detect ketosis and treat it early to minimize milk loss

When subclinical ketosis was found and treated early, the affected cows actually went on to make more milk than their healthy herdmates during the first 30 days in milk. A protocol to find ketotic cows and treat them promptly puts cows on the right track and milk in the tank. Blood or milk testing protocols are common detection methods.

The future of ketosis detection

Pulling blood samples on fresh cows can be a rigorous and time-consuming task, and sampling through monthly milk tests may result in missed diagnoses. But according to White, the day is coming when dairies will no longer require a needle or a milk sample to determine the herd’s needs for ketosis intervention.

The university’s dairy science and computer science departments are teaming up to integrate the data streams coming from on-farm software and sensors into algorithms and decision support tools in a concept called the “virtual farm brain.”

This type of artificial intelligence uses predictive diagnostics based on data from farm management software to monitor herd-level prevalence of the metabolic disease. Some dairies may consider this predictive tool for monitoring whole-herd risk as an alternative to individual cow blood testing.

Models are not yet sensitive enough to accurately detect ketosis at the individual cow level, but further work on this is currently underway at the university.

What about ketosis and feed efficiency?

White told dairy producers they need not be afraid to breed for feed efficiency. Her team’s research is showing feed efficiency and fat mobilization work independently from each other. Thus, genetic selection based on feed efficiency data does not put the animal at greater risk for ketosis.

However, feed intake and fat mobilization are related because a cow that eats less is in a state of negative energy balance and will therefore mobilize more fat.  end mark

Peggy Coffeen