Detecting uterine disease in your herd

Metritis – oh that stinks! A fetid discharge from the vagina is a good way to detect Metritis, but what else can we be looking for?

An important principle of increasing the likelihood of successfully treating any disease is early identification followed by appropriate intervention. Finding a cow in toxic shock or even dead is a bit late. This is the 2nd article of a series of four from Michigan State University Extension on metritis. 

Metritis is defined as an infection of the uterine lining that occurs primarily within the first 14 days after calving, with the peak at 5-7 days. Endometritis may be clinical or subclinical and occurs by definition after 21 days in milk.  Early identification of metritis and endometritis will increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.  So how can a farm do a better job with early detection of uterine disease?

Various protocols have been developed to help identify cows with metritis early. An example of this would be protocols for taking temperatures the first 10 or 14 days after calving. Protocols such as these are a good way to make sure that farmers and employees observe fresh cows for problems and create the opportunity to observe for discharge or diarrhea. Most important is the need to be consistent in following protocols and recording observations and measurements.

However, one needs to be aware that as many as 60% of cows with metritis do not show an elevated temperature. Therefore, solely relying on elevated temperature to detect metritis will result in the majority of infected cows going undiagnosed. 

Where farms are set up to have a separate pen for fresh cows, it is easy to check them on a daily basis and to observe them. When a farm does not have a separate group of fresh cows, it can be helpful to mark fresh cows so that they can be seen in a group and observed. 

Dr. Garrett Oetzel, Department of Medical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, says that “appetite is the key driver for how we identify [sick] cows early.” Therefore, he recommends we need to be intentional in observing cows eating behavior.

  • Time the feeding of cows with milking time and observe fresh cows returning from the parlor and their interest in eating.
  • Look for the absence of feed “holes” in front of cows after they have been at the feed bunk to identify cows that are standing at the bunk, but not eating.
  • Be observant for changes in behavior from what is ordinary for an individual cow.  

Rumination data from monitors may help us to identify cows to be examined. Huzzey reported on the feeding behavior of cows and showed that healthy fresh cows increase feeding time after calving at a rate of 3.3 minutes per day through the first 10 days in milk. Rumination data may be particularly helpful in identifying the more subtle changes such as cows that are slow to increase intake because of subclinical sickness.  

Take time to observe cows and look at the degree of rumen fill and watch to see rumen movements that indicate normal eating and rumination. Mark those that seem to be off. 

Decrease in milk production during the first 3 weeks, or even a failure to gain rapidly enough in milk per day is an indicator that the cow is sick. While daily milk weights, or even better, every milking milk weights can help us identify these cows, so can an observant milker. During the fresh period, udder should be tight and full. If it is not, it is a good indication that she is down on production and may be sick. Train your milkers to examine fresh cows at milking time and make note of any that are not full. 

Walking the fresh cow pen several hours after feeding when cows are lying in the stalls is a good time to check for discharge in the bed or alley behind them. Metritis is most commonly characterized by a fetid-smelling, reddish-brown watery discharge. Vaginal discharge from cows with endometritis is more often purulent (pus filled) or mucopurulent (mixture of mucus and pus) and may not have an odor. 

When an animal is identified as “something is not right” about her, then it is time to do a more complete physical exam of her. Note her attitude, ear position, eyes (sunken or bright) and head position. Look at the rear end for tail position (raised tail?), signs of diarrhea and discharge. Check heart rate (may be elevated with metritis).

Use each cow that flags your attention as a teaching opportunity for your employees and as a learning opportunity from your veterinarian. The more you and your employees learn about identifying cows in early stages of disease, the better you will do in controlling uterine disease in your herd.

Other articles in this series

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