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Understanding Metabolic Disorders of Calving and Early Lactation

Metabolic disorders can have a significant negative impact on your herd health, production, and profit over the calving and early lactation period.

Understanding the processes that can cause them, as well as the most common disorders to look out for, can help you minimise the impact they have on your business.

What is metabolism?

Metabolism describes all the processes taking place within the body of the cow where the body is either absorbing, breaking down or creating organic molecules (like carbohydrates, fats, proteins, or nucleic acids). These processes can be physical, chemical, or metabolic.

During metabolism, metabolites are released. The body either uses these to build and repair - or breaks them down and removes them as waste. This provides energy for the cow, allowing the normal functioning of her body.

What causes metabolic disorders?

When something happens to disrupt the balance in the metabolic process, it can cause either individual organs or systems, or the whole body, to stop working correctly.

This is what is known as a metabolic disorder.

On the dairy farm, metabolic disorders can be considered ‘production diseases’, which indicate disorders/diseases that arise when a cow struggles to meet the demands of high production while also being fed a diet that is not balanced in terms of what she requires leading up to and post-calving.

Key metabolic issues to look out for during and post-calving

There are a wide range of post-calving disorders linked to a breakdown of metabolic processes in calving and early lactation cows. Some of these can be diagnosed by the presence of blood metabolite imbalances.

Be aware that the presence of a metabolic disorder in a cow increases the likelihood of additional metabolic disorders also being present.

Always monitor your herd for the following:

- Milk fever (Hypocalcaemia)

- Mastitis (Clinical and subclinical)

- Retained foetal membranes (RFM)

- Left displaced abomasum (LDA)

- Ketosis

- Acidosis

Milk fever (Hypocalcaemia)

Milk fever occurs when a cow does not have sufficient calcium levels. It usually occurs in the first 24 hours after calving but can crop up later.

Look out for:

- Down cows

- Unsteadiness on feet

- Dry muzzle

- S – bend in the neck

- Cold ears


The two weeks prior to and two weeks after calving represent the highest risk for a cow to develop mastitis.

Infection during this time can have negative impacts on milk production and milk quality that extend throughout the entire season.

Strip quarters daily once calved and look out for:

- Clumps in the milk

- Translucent milk

- Hard, swollen, red or hot quarters

- Agitation

Retained foetal membranes (RFM)

Foetal membranes are normally expelled between three and eight hours after the birth of the calf. If they have not been expelled within 24 hours, the cow will be diagnosed with RFM.

Left displaced abomasum (LDA)

LDAs occur when the abomasum expands with gas and rises upwards and to the left.

Look out for:

- A loss of appetite, particularly for grain

- Decreased milk production

- Reduced faeces with a looser quality

- A ‘sprung’ appearance in the back part of the rib cage


Ketosis occurs as a result of an energy imbalance between the energy required to produce milk and the energy intake from feed.

The greatest risk for ketosis is in the first two weeks after calving, although it can present at any point post-calving.

Look out for:

- Weight loss

- Reduced appetite

- A drop in milk production

- Dull coat

- Fever

- Breath or milk that smells like acetone


Acidosis occurs when there is an imbalance in the acid present in the rumen. It is often fatal.

Look out for:

- Reduced appetite

- Weight loss

- Fever

- Diarrhoea

- Lethargy

- Elevated breathing and pulse rate

How to avoid metabolic disorders

The best way to avoid metabolic disorders around calving is to feed your herd a balanced leed feed based on a DCAD diet. You can learn more about DCAD diets here.

The SuperStart Pre-Calving Leed Feed program contains everything your herd needs to enter calving in the best possible condition.

In conclusion, feed your herd a quality, balanced leed feed leading up to calving and be on the look out for metabolic disorders, because prompt treatment improves outcomes.

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