Ketosis And The Family Cow

Ketosis And The Family Cow

By Kay Wolfe, Texas

If you have a family milk cow, chances are you have experienced ketosis or you will. Ketosis is a metabolic disorder that affects many dairy animals after freshening and if untreated can have disastrous results. Prevention, monitoring and quick treatment are the keys to overcoming this dreaded condition.

Of course, if your cow is sick, the first thing to do is contact your local veterinarian. The problem is many of us are in areas without easy access to vets. Our country is experiencing a shortage of large animal veterinarians and even if you have one, there are times they just cannot come to your aid. As with children, animals have a knack for coming down with something on weekends and holidays, leaving us scrambling to find help or even the medication and supplies we need. We have learned the hard way to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.


Ketosis is a complex metabolic condition, not a bacteria or virusinduced disease. In simple terms, ketosis is when the cow is using energy faster than she can digest and create it. A negative energy balance results from a huge glucose demand from milk production, causing the body to burn stored fat, similar to what happens to humans on the Adkins diet. The result is fatty acids in the bloodstream build while glucose levels plummet. The liver tries to keep up but the result of this synthesis is ketones in the system. You may not be familiar with ketones, but you’ve probably smelled acetone in nail polish remover. It is basically the same thing. As a result, you may even smell the acetone on the cow’s breath or in her milk.

Depending on how advanced the disease, the cow will feel bad, her production will drop, she will lose condition very fast, she may become dehydrated, stop eating or drastically reduce her feed intake, and if not treated soon will begin to have digestive problems including constipation, and can even have a displaced obosum (meaning the stomach on the bottom will rotate upwards). This disorder can even cause a nervous condition where she licks everything and acts like she’s drunk. By the time you see these symptoms, you will know your girl is in serious trouble, but how will you know it is ketosis and not something else? The easiest way is to check her urine for ketones with a ketone strip.

The most convenient place for me to find ketone strips is at my local pharmacy. The bottle will have a color chart on the side ranging from white to dark purple. All you need is a drop of your cow’s urine on the tip of the strip and it will immediately turn dark if ketones are present. The darker the color, the more ketones present and the sicker your cow. You can actually have ketones present without any symptoms, but you need to know if this condition is developing. Since it is hard to predict when your cow will pee, there is a technique that will cause your cow to urinate. If you put your finger under her vulva and stimulate, it should cause her to release her urine—if she has any. If you are a fan of YouTube, you can search it and find some videos showing it being done. We find that fresh cows (those who gave birth recently) generally have to urinate when we start milking due to the contractions, so go about your milking and get ready.


Now that you know what ketosis is, you need to know when to watch for it. If it is going to happen, it will most likely show up in the first few weeks following freshening (calving). A dairy cow will go from storing energy during her dry period to using energy at an incredible rate overnight in milk production. Just as you and I could not run a marathon without building up endurance, it takes a cow’s body some time to adjust to the new demands of milk production. As a result, the longer the dry period between lactations, the more likely a cow will experience ketosis.

All cows need a dry period between her last freshening and her next. The last few weeks in a cow’s gestation is when the calf grows the fastest and has the biggest demand on the mother’s system. She needs this time to grow her calf and replenish her own reserves. The problem is, they can also gain weight fast during this time if you continue to feed them like you did when they were milking. We feel a two-month dry period is about right. Any less would not give her a rest and any more could lead to a fatty liver. You certainly don’t want a starved skinny cow going into calving, but you don’t want a fat girl either. Not only could it lead to ketosis but it could result in a larger than normal calf, resulting in calving difficulties.

Since the dry period is so important, many dairymen have a special “close in” diet. They reduce the grain to dry her up and then slowly increase the feed approaching her due date. You will always need to provide around-the-clock pasture or good hay and fresh water in addition to loose minerals. Energy comes from carbohydrates, not protein, so we love to add sorghum molasses to our cow’s feed. It is a bi-product of sugar production. They separate the minerals and vitamins from the sugar and sell this dark molasses as a garden additive for organic gardeners and for animal feed. They save the pure sugar for us humans! You should be able to buy it reasonably in five-gallon buckets from a garden supply or farm supply store.

There are few things more debated in home dairy circles than grain feeding, so you have probably heard a wide range of suggestions. I’ve heard everything from grass only to three pounds of high protein dairy feed per gallon of production. As with most things, I like to take a middle-of-the-road approach. Beef cows can certainly do fine on grass only, but it takes some preparation to find a true dairy breed that can stay healthy on grass alone. It can certainly be done if you have great grass and hay and your heifer was raised to develop a large active rumen, but if you buy a dairy cull who has been raised on grain, she’s going to go down on grass alone.

High protein diets have been linked to a greater incidence of problems like ketosis and mastitis due to the high production of milk. We like to keep the protein at 14 percent or below for supplemental feed. To increase the carbohydrates, we add the sorghum and love that she gets the added minerals and vitamins it contains. We only feed a few pounds a day of mixed grain as a treat, but then we have great grass and we raise our cows on grass to develop their rumen. You will have to play with your feed quantity until you find what works for your girl, but for sure, always make sure she gets the long stem hay or great pasture.

As a recap, we recommend you stop the grain supplement when you dry her up. The dry period should start at eight weeks before her next due date. About five weeks out, start with a small amount of low-protein, high-fiber grain with some molasses poured over it. We also like to add some sea kelp, diatomaceous earth, dolomite and an ounce of raw apple cider vinegar. You can also keep the kelp and dolomite out free choice if you prefer. We have found these added minerals and ingredients help prevent many conditions and keep her in the best of health resulting in being highly fertile. Slowly increase the feed until freshening, when you are giving her the usual amount she eats while lactating.

In order to ease into milk production, we leave the calf with her the first 12 hours and let it nurse, but we don’t milk. After that, you can either leave the calf with her or remove him and feed colostrum and milk if you prefer to bottle feed your calves. Watch her udder closely and milk her daily, but otherwise there is no reason to empty it at this point. The more you take out, the more demand it is putting on her system. People will tell you that you must completely empty the udder or she will get mastitis. If she has had mastitis before and had a lingering germ, then that may be true, but not the rule. You need the germs to cause an infection so keep her in a clean stall or pasture, and you shouldn’t have a problem unless you are feeding her a lot of high protein grain that is pushing her production.

Ketosis in Cows
Ketosis in Cows

By the fourth day, she should be ready to go into full production and the colostrum should be gone. From then on, we milk once a day and completely empty the udder. If you feed grain or have high-producing Holsteins, then you would most likely have to milk twice a day, but we are a home dairy and not looking for maximum production. Our Guernsey girls have been milked once a day for generations and that is without calf sharing. We do not have a mastitis problem and their udders hold up well for years.


Now is the time to start monitoring the ketones. If she is clean then you’re probably okay. If you see the udder start to turn pink or purple, then now’s the time to take action before you see any symptoms. There are two products you can use with her feed to help balance her metabolism. One is glycerin and the other is propylene glycol. They both work the same way. Glycerin is a natural product, more expensive and harder to find, but I much prefer it because it is natural and the cows seem to like the taste better. I had to order mine online and pay shipping to the farm. Propylene glycol can be purchased at most farm stores and is reasonably priced. Start pouring a half cup or more over her feed and then monitor her ketones to see if they are getting better or worse the next day and adjust the amount accordingly. This is high in carbohydrates and provides the needed glucose similar to a person with low blood sugar.

If despite your best efforts, your cow’s ketones are way too high and she’s obviously sick, it may be time for an IV. If you’ve never given an IV to a cow, it sounds scary and you will think it is something you simply can’t do. If you are a homesteader and work with your cow every day, you can do this but only if you have the supplies you need. We keep an emergency kit with everything needed to deal with this and other potential problems.

We do this because we’ve been up all night with a sick cow before, thinking she would be gone before the store opened or a vet returned our call. It only takes one night like that and then you’ll get prepared. As always, when you are prepared, you seldom need the supplies. It is just part of Murphy’s Law I guess! We use a 500 ml bottle of dextrose (50 percent), a Primary I.V. Set, and “Polypropylene Hub Hypodermic Needle.” You may find something you like better though. We bought ours online from Valley Vet, but I’m sure you can find them at other veterinarian supply stores. The packaging will show you how to assemble these items.

You will need to make sure your cow is restrained, especially her head. You can use a stanchion if you have one and can get her in it or you can use a halter. If you have her in the barn, use a lead rope to tie her head to something stable and push her body up against a wall. If you happen to be out in the field in an emergency and she will not budge, you’ll have to restrain her as best you can. The best way to learn how to place the needle in the vein is to go on YouTube and watch several videos of people doing it. They will teach you how to feel for that main vein that runs alongside the neck and insert the needle at an angle. When you do it, do it quickly. Hold the IV tube down and see if blood starts to flow into it. If so, you’ve hit the right spot. You may want to tape the needle in place so it doesn’t pull out or move. Now, raise your bottle above the needle so gravity will feed it into the vein. It may take a while, depending on your tube and needle, so be patient and try to keep her calm. Once your bottle is empty, remove the needle quickly, rub the spot and you’re done.

She should get better almost immediately, but that doesn’t mean she is well. You’ll need to continue to monitor her ketones and adjust her feed accordingly. We have found that good lush pasture puts weight on better than anything else and provides the energy she needs. You should expect the ketones to get lower each day until she is normal again, and in a few weeks she should be out of the woods and fine until her next freshening. If not, something is not right and you’ll need to find a vet that can come out and give her a good physical.

We have found that our dairy cows give us very little trouble, but calving is a difficult time. We prefer to hope for the best but be prepared, and ketosis is one of the most likely things that can go wrong. Keep your veterinarian’s phone number handy, your emergency kit stocked and you should be able to weather whatever comes your way. Our family dairy cows give so much and we want to be there for them in a moment of crisis. With a little preparation, you can too.

Kay Wolfe raises registered Guernsey dairy cows with her husband in Harlingen, Texas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *