Hypocalcaemia: a dangerous iceberg for dairy farmers

Over 75% of Dutch dairy cows suffers from hypocalcaemia in the transition period. Blue4Green and Dutch veterinarians showed this in an extensive research project using new techniques that quickly analyze calcium levels during a farm visit, next to the cow.

The tip of the iceberg (22%) has a severe calcium deficiency; these cows usually show symptoms of milk fever. The rest of the problem lies ‘under water’; it consists of hypocalcaemic cows that don’t present with any symptoms of milk fever, but are at increased risk of costly health problems.

Two weeks after calving, 50% of the cows hasn’t fully recovered. The cause and the number of cows suffering from hypocalcaemia strongly differ between farms. A structural improvement can only be achieved when a veterinarian thoroughly analyzes the individual farm and presents sound advice on all aspects of transition cow management.

For 2300 dairy cows (including heifers) in the transition period, the level of ionized calcium in blood was analyzed using Blue4Green’s innovative lab-on-a-chip technology. The ionized calcium fraction is the free, unbound fraction of blood calcium, immediately available for body functions such as muscle contraction and the immune system.

The trial showed that hypocalcaemia is common, but mostly invisible. As much as 56% of the cows in this trial suffered from low calcium levels, without showing symptoms of milk fever. This subclinical form of hypocalcaemia increases the risk of health problems, such as dystocia, retained fetal membranes, ketosis and infections. Another 22% had a very low calcium level at calving, causing muscle weakness and usually clinical milk fever.

Moreover, the results show that 2 weeks after calving the blood calcium level is not fully restored in 50% of the cows. This has a negative effect on health and production.

The size of the iceberg

Hypocalcaemia and its consequences for cow health and performance in early lactation, cost dairy farmers a large amount of money. At every farm that participated in the trial, hypocalcaemia was responsible for an estimated € 10.000 to € 30.000 in costs and missed income per year. The average herd size at these farms is 80-100 dairy cows.

The size of the iceberg is different for individual farms. Some have twice as much cows suffering from hypocalcaemia than others and the causes are diverse. Therefore, it’s important that this complex problem is thoroughly analyzed to be able to find the optimal solution.

Solving the problem together

Blue4Green, Dutch veterinarians and Wageningen University and Research Centre developed Dry2Fresh, a transition monitor. Dairy farmers and veterinarians cooperate to tackle hypocalcaemia and the related health problems, using blood calcium analysis, transition cow scoring systems dry cow scores and an online software application that fully supports Dry2Fresh. The veterinarian, being a specialist who is able to integrate nutrition, physiology and health, is the right person to analyze the problem and provide tailor-made advice. To improve farm performance and sustainability, every aspect of management (housing, feeding and preventive treatment) is discussed in Dry2Fresh.

The results of the field trial will be presented in more detail in a scientific article that is being prepared at the moment. The trial was supported by Nano4Vitality.

Interested in a presentation on Dry2Fresh? Please contact us.

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