Minerals are critical to the health and performance of grazing livestock. Deficiencies and excesses of minerals in an animal’s diet can cause weight loss, decreased reproductive performance, and a variety of nutritional disorders, says Kalyn Waters, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist. She points to milk fever as a metabolic issue that can occur as a result of mineral imbalances this time of year.
"It is important to understand various factors that contribute to the potential for these disorders and also to understand associated symptoms and treatments to minimize losses," Waters said.
Milk Fever (Parturient Paresis)
Milk fever is generally associated with high-producing dairy cattle; however, it can also occur in beef cattle Waters explains.
"Milk fever is a result of hypocalcaemia (low calcium). Most forage contains enough calcium to meet the minimal requirements of livestock, which is around 40 grams per day. However, a dramatic increase in calcium requirements occurs with the onset of lactation in the dam, and requirements are typically unable to be met simply by increasing Calcium intake," she said.
Colostrum which contains 2.0 to 2.3grams per liter of calcium is partly to blame explains Waters.
"Colostrum drains reserves in the cow’s blood stream; which explains why milk fever is typically seen in mature cows as they have a much greater rate of colostrum production."
Hypocalcaemia results in a decrease in smooth muscle function, decreasing rumen and gastrointestinal tract function and ultimately resulting in a decrease in dry matter intake. In addition, decreases in uterine motility and immunity raise the risk of uterine infections and decreased fertility.
Normal levels of calcium in the blood will be between 8.5 and 11 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL); however, levels drop dramatically in a cow experiencing milk fever, resulting in clinical symptoms which can include; lack of muscle coordination and twitching; dry muzzle, depression, altered rectal temperature, and laying down but still up right; and in the most severe stage – bloat, laying out flat, weak pulse, flaccid muscles, risk of death. This decrease of calcium in the blood supply directly impacts the animal’s ability to regulate muscle contractions and relaxation, which is the most identifiable clinical signs of milk fever.
Waters says that cattle must be able to increase absorption of calcium in the small intestine and mobilize stored calcium from bones to effectively meet increased requirements of lactation.
"Mobilization of bone calcium is regulated by parathyroid hormone (PTH), which is produced by glands in the neck. When blood calcium levels drop, PTH is activated. As this occurs, a secondary hormone derived from vitamin D in the kidney stimulates the intestine to increase absorption of dietary calcium. If calcium intake from the diet was sufficient prior to calving, mechanisms for stimulating calcium mobilization may not be stimulated," she said.
Because of this, Waters recommends that cattle producers reduce calcium intake late in gestation to prime those systems and increase their functionality prior to the onset of lactation. She admits however, it is difficult to get calcium levels in the diet low enough to actually prevent milk fever.
Blood pH
Another factor that can affect the ability of cows to mobilize calcium reserves from bone is pH level of the blood.
"Calcium acts as a base in the blood, thus higher levels of calcium will result in more alkaline blood pH. If pH of cattle is too alkaline, hormones that stimulate PTH do not act efficiently on bone or kidney tissues and cattle are unable to mobilize calcium reserves," Waters said.
Waters says adequate levels of magnesium are also important in the function of these hormones. If magnesium is deficient, supplying magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, or magnesium oxide in the diet at a level of up to 0.4 percent can help acidify the blood.
Excessive potassium in the diet is one of the major factors affecting blood pH and potentially contributing to milk fever. Some types of forage may have excessively high amounts of potassium due to fertilization strategies and accumulation of potassium in plant tissues. Waters says that high levels of potassium may be observed in lush green grasses and alfalfa, while corn silage, straw and small grain forages tend to contain lower levels.
If forages are suspect in milk fever cases, potassium concentration should be determined by standard "wet chemistry" lab analysis. To learn more about this analysis visit
Rations with less than 2 percent potassium are recommended to prevent milk fever.
"Although mineral requirements are considered to be small in relation to other nutrients, they serve numerous important functions in animal health and immune response," Waters said. "Milk fever is an example of how complex mineral interactions and imbalances can cause metabolic issues, particularly in lactating animals with increased requirements."
In cases of milk fever, Waters says early detection is key to successful treatment. Waters encourages producers to observe cattle closely to minimize losses, and producers should maintain close contact with their veterinarian for the best prevention and treatment strategies.

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