Getting the proper amount of energy into high-producing dairy cows during the first six to eight weeks postpartum can be very difficult. Slug feeding large amounts of grain or molasses at one time can cause a cow to contract acidosis or fatty liver at a time when she should be most productively lactating.

Upon developing fatty liver, a cow sometimes must be shipped, thus leaving her genetic potential unmet. Acidosis can lead to issues such as laminitis and other foot problems such as hairy heal wart. If a cow contracts hairy heal wart and it spreads to the entire herd, it can be very costly.

When a cow gives birth, she must be prepared to go from a high-fiber diet to a high-energy diet virtually overnight. With a feed change, it normally takes 10 to 12 days for the animal to build up the correct beneficial bacteria to digest her feed effectively. During this transition, the cow may not have enough energy to produce milk, resulting in ketosis.

Ketosis is caused by the buildup of ketones produced when fat is burned in the absence of carbohydrates. Ketones cause a cow’s breath to have a sweet acetone scent, but because the smell can be difficult to detect, it is most effective to test the blood with a ketone meter. A ketone meter will test for the presence of ketosis in cows under stress and not meeting energy needs for their production.

Ketone meters are affordable and quite accurate. They are easier to use and more convenient than using ketosis strips to measure the urine pH. Also, ketosis strips can be time-consuming to collect with less accurate results. To use a ketone meter, the producer collects a small drop of blood from under the tail of the cow. It is then placed on a strip and inserted into the ketone meter for a quick, accurate reading. Furthermore, ketone meters are easier to use because when the cow’s tail is lifted she is less likely to kick.


When a cow enters ketosis, she is more prone to mastitis because her immune system is compromised. A case of ketosis costs approximately $143, and mastitis costs over $300 when the somatic cell count is elevated. Monitoring your animals for dry matter intake and how they are processing their feed will help minimize ketosis issues. At least half of the cows should be chewing their cud at any time of the day.

During early lactation, cows are not yet fully ruminating. Because of this, a cow can lack niacin, which is used to naturally burn fat into available energy. Therefore the cow will benefit from being fed 6 to 12 grams of niacin in the ration or a drench with propylene glycol or glycerin for up to three days. Glycerin allows the user to give up to a liter at a time, whereas propylene glycol is limited to about 300 milliliters at a time. Glycerin has been made more affordable recently because it is a byproduct of the alcohol industry. When combined with either added niacin in the ration or a product that includes niacin, the cow will effectively receive the extra energy she needs until she is fully ruminating.

Probiotics can also help cows at risk for ketosis during the transition to new feed. When new feed is introduced, the probiotics in the ration help digest the feed more completely without putting the cow in such an energy imbalance. The 10 to 12 days needed for natural bacteria to populate the cow’s gut is not necessary when using probiotics. Beneficial bacteria, enzymes and prebiotics are added to the feed for faster, more complete digestion, allowing the cow to meet energy needs naturally and more quickly. The immune system also becomes healthier and better able to deal with change in the cow’s environment. When new feeds are introduced without using probiotics, they are not always completely broken down. This results in protein, energy and vitamins leaving the animal’s body undigested in the manure and ultimately amounts to wasted resources and financial loss.

The following issues can also cause ketosis to occur:

  • Not enough access to fresh, clean water
  • Not pushing enough clean, unheated feed up to the cow
  • Decreased dry matter intake due to poor foot health
  • Being pushed out of feed by dominant cows
  • Butyric acid in stored feeds
  • A lack of proper bunk space of over 2 feet per cow

With good management, producers should keep their animals longer with fewer metabolic issues that can affect the health of the animal and the producer’s bottom line.  end mark

Rod Lorenson is the national account manager for Vets Plus Inc.