Retained placentas can be terribly frustrating. Not only can they open the door to a host of secondary disorders, but you just never know if one is a fluke or if you are heading for a transition cow train wreck.

Retired Organic Dairy Producer / Options Trader

According to Noelia Silva-del-Rio, University of California Cooperative Extension – Tulare County (2011 California Dairy Newsletter), the average herd experiences retained placentas (RP) at a rate of 8 percent. I wouldn’t be happy with that number. Would you?

I went digging into my own records, and for the last 1,000 calvings, I have had 21 cows with a retained placenta. I am classifying them retained at 24 hours from calving.

Why did I pick 1,000 calvings?

  1. One thousand calvings is a decent sample size; this wasn’t a trial with four cows in a lab.
  2. One thousand calvings represents almost three years here, so we have different growing seasons and feed profiles involved.
  3. One thousand calvings lines up with when I first started feeding kelp to a commercial herd.

Yep. Kelp.


People give me crazy looks when I talk about kelp. They think that I have lost my mind.

Retained placentas and number of calvings

Mike Hutjens recently detailed his four pillars for feeding success at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference. One of his four pillars was feed additives. On the farm, Hutjens has six recommended additives: rumen buffers, yeast products, monensin, silage inoculants, biotin and organic trace minerals.

Kelp fits into the organic trace minerals.

What is kelp?

If you are not familiar with kelp, it is dried seaweed, often touted as nature's superfood by health experts. It has long been a staple in organic agriculture. Seaweed is a negatively charged plant. Through the process of natural chelation, it can easily neutralize and absorb positively charged trace minerals. This ion exchange makes trace minerals more easily available to the cow instead of the trace minerals being part of a more complex (colloidal) compound.

Kelp is traditionally farmed from the ocean floor and contains an array of 56 bioavailable trace minerals. Among the trace minerals kelp contains are chelated forms of iodine, selenium and calcium, which all play a large role in reproductive health.

You could say it’s a more efficient and diverse source of trace minerals compared with pulverized rock sources.

Why kelp?

I didn’t start using kelp because we were having any real trouble with cows cleaning. I started because I was so impressed after witnessing some very well run organic herds feed it free-choice through the whole lactation and dry period. These herds routinely achieved impressive results in both cow condition and low incidences of metabolic disorders. Aside from kelp, salt and sodium bicarbonate, they were not offering any other mineral package. I thought, if they could do it, why can’t I?

The other thing that attracted me to kelp is that we are not a closed herd. We raise some of our heifers off-site, and we constantly bring new animals into the herd. Most new additions come as springers that may be due in three weeks or less. For some of these animals, I have no idea what kind of program they were on. Kelp has helped get their immune systems and mineral levels quickly up to speed.

kelp for feeding cows

How do you feed kelp?

Recommended feeding rates of kelp are 2 to 4 ounces per cow per day. Some herds feed it free-choice and are very happy with the results. I started feeding at the high end of 4 ounces per cow per day for the first six months. I am currently feeding 3 ounces per cow, mixed right in the TMR, through the entire dry period and have been very satisfied.

Through observation of other herds that have a free-choice kelp program, producers will comment that the cows hit the kelp harder during stressful events and in overcast weather. This is the main reason I have selected the entire dry cow period. We have cows drying off every week and calving every day. Feeding kelp through the whole dry period ensures that their trace mineral levels are in optimal condition for the two major stress periods in a cow’s life – dry-off and calving.

Feeding kelp at 3 ounces a day is costing 22 cents per cow per day. With our dry cows averaging a 62-day dry period, the total cost per cow is $13.64. I am not familiar with any retained placenta treatment protocol that can be achieved for $13.64. For this farm, five days of Excenel at 15 cc per day costs $60. This is a prime example of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Where do you get kelp?

I have tried three different sources of kelp. I started with Fertrell and really liked their product, but I stopped using it when they told me there would be a limit on how much I could buy. I tried a generic brand – it literally said “organic kelp meal” on the bag and that was it. I didn’t care for the consistency or the particle size. It was a lot like feeding clumps of shale. Currently, I am feeding Thorvin kelp and have been pleased with both the supply and the quality.

Like any dairy, we try our best every day, but we still hit speed bumps. We are not immune to calving slugs or overcrowding in our prefresh pen from time to time. We try to feed low-potassium hay and a balanced ration, with a complete mineral package, from a professional nutritionist. We try to provide adequate heat abatement in the summer and more energy for maintenance in the winter. Through it all, over a three-year time period and 1,000 calvings, we have been able to maintain an impressive 2.1 percent rate of retained placentas. I really believe kelp is playing a major role in that.

For more on how and why we are incorporating kelp into the herd, check out the Dairyhack website.  end mark

Jim VanDerlinde
  • Jim VanDerlinde

  • Dairy Producer, Consultant
  • Hillview Dairy
  • Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Email Jim VanDerlinde

PHOTO 1: Over a three-year time period and 1,000 calvings, Jim Vanderlinde says his herd has been able to maintain an impressive 2.1 percent rate of retained placentas versus the industry average of 8 percent. He believes kelp is playing a major role in that accomplishment.

PHOTO 2: Jim Vanderlinde says feeding kelp helps to improve cow condition and achieve low incidences of metabolic disorders. He has also found that kelp helps new animals entering the herd get their immune systems and mineral levels quickly up to speed. Photos by Jim Vanderlinde.