The smelly facts of the retained placenta
It’s something that happens to everyone at least once during calving. A cow calves and doesn’t clean. The afterbirth, more technically described as a retained placenta, drags for days, but simply will not drop loose. Normally, the cow cleans within an hour or two of calving, usually right after the calf nurses, but problems quickly multiply if she fails to do so.
The circumstances leading to the retained placenta are varied A difficult birth requiring assistance can cause a cow to not go ahead and clean. If the cow is in good condition otherwise, a shot of oxytocin while still in the calving chute following the birth of the calf could help to expedite the shedding of the afterbirth, though normally she will do so anyway.
Dr. Jim Myers, DVM, Belle Fourche, South Dakota says “A retained placenta will also happen if the cow is in poor condition, has a nutritional deficiency, premature birth, pine needle abortion, or a dead calf birth, and are generally due to the cow’s hormone sequence getting out of order.” Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any reason. The outcome is the same though: if the cow doesn’t clean and fight off any infection that has begun, she won’t re-breed.
Nutritional deficiencies, either through cows being thin or simply having an imbalance of nutrients can lead to a large percentage of cows within a herd not cleaning. Myers explains “Protein deficiency is responsible for the cow being thin. Her nutritive needs are not being met as the calf grows in the womb, taking more and more of the nutrients from the cow. Improving body condition once calving starts is difficult, if not impossible, so must be given attention long before calving.” Supplemental feeding, whether with good quality hay and concentrates like cake or lick barrels, can improve the nutritional deficit in the cow and in turn, improve the chance that she will clean properly when she calves. “The last trimester of pregnancy is the most critical time for the nutritional needs of the cow,” says Myers, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in the case of mother cow nutrition.
According to Dr. Myers, the most important mineral nutrient required for normal hormonal development and maintenance is phosphorous. A phosphorous deficiency can lead to delayed reproductive maturity in replacement heifers and cause otherwise mature appearing heifers to not cycle correctly or breed as yearlings. Dr. Myers explains “A deficiency during pregnancy can cause cows to not produce the hormones, mainly estrogen, that are necessary for a full term, normal birth and can be the culprit in the failure to expel the afterbirth in the hours immediately after calving. A deficiency can also cause cows to not milk well and for calves to be born weak.”
“The lack of phosphorous that leads to the estrogen imbalance also prevents the natural release of oxytocin,” says Myers, “which combined with estrogen, causes the uterus to contract after calving, therefore shrinking the “buttons” that attach the placenta to the wall of the uterus and cause the afterbirth to drop loose and be expelled.”
Phosphorous can easily be provided through mineral supplementation. “A good mineral is a 12-12 with phosphorous and trace minerals of copper (5500 parts per million) and zinc (7500 ppm),” says Dr. Myers, “The mineral must be chelated to overcome the levels of sulfur and molybdenum that are found in the soils and water in the northern plains region. If not chelated, the mineral simply passes through the body and does the cow no good.”
Finding mineral that is palatable to the cows so that they readily consume it is very important and experimentation is sometimes necessary to find the right one. A less expensive route would be to ask neighbors and friends what they are feeding for a mineral and how well the cows are eating it. Mineral isn’t cheap, but neither are open cows, so the investment has good returns. Uneaten mineral isn’t a money saver in this case.
When a good high phosphorous mineral is first introduced to cows that are deficient, they will eat it at a high rate. Don’t be tempted to mix it with salt to slow the intake. “That intake is desired in order to build up the levels in the cows system and allow her to start replenishing deficiencies,” says Dr. Myers. Consumption will level off after a while and if the mineral is out year around, will maintain at a much lower rate of consumption.
Prevention has been addressed, so now, what can be done with that cow that hasn’t cleaned? Dr. Jim Myers says “First of all, don’t pull on the afterbirth. Leave it alone. Giving an oxytocin shot to help clean a cow won’t work either because the estrogen wasn’t there to begin with and certainly isn’t there after two or three days.” He continues “I just treat the cow for the infection that the retained placenta is causing. My drug of choice is good old Penicillin. It’s the widest spectrum antibiotic and it’s cheap.” Myers adds, chuckling, “The downside is that you have to give her a shot every 24 hours until she cleans, so she’s not going to like you much.”
Cows are tough animals and normally very reproductively sound. If one keeps the nutrients and minerals she needs in front of her, the cow will reproduce like clockwork. Even after a retained placenta, a cow that is treated for the infection and heals up quickly can stay in step with the breeding herd and never miss a lick.
A solid mineral and nutritional program can head off more than the occasional retained placenta and pays off dividends in the long run and makes this smelly situation a rarity.