Energy Related Diseases in Dairy Cows

Dr. Douglas Hammon, D.V.M., PhD
USU Extension Veterinarian

In dairy cattle, most metabolic or production diseases (e.g., milk fever, ketosis, displaced abomasum) occur around the time of calving or within the first 30 days after calving. Recently, some metabolic or production diseases have been termed �energy related diseases� to reflect their relationship to negative energy balance. As such, energy related diseases are associated with negative energy balance and other nutrient deficits at or around the time of calving. In addition to the nutrient deficits that cows experience around the time of calving, many cows also experience profound suppression of their immune system, resulting in an increased risk for infectious disease. Negative nutrient balance and suppression of the immune system in dairy cows appear to be strongly related. Recent studies have shed some light on the relationships between nutrition, immunity, and disease in dairy cows.

Displaced Abomasum

Researchers at the Department of Population Medicine, University of Guelph, Canada recently identified risk factors that may predict displaced abomasum in dairy cows. They found that cows with elevated blood non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA) concentration one week prior to calving were 3.5 times more likely to develop displaced abomasum after calving. They also found that cows with a positive urine ketone test during the week after calving were 11.8 times more likely to develop displaced abomasum. As elevated NEFA and ketones are indicators of energy deficiency, these results suggest that the timing and severity of negative energy balance, and the cow�s ability to adapt to the energy deficit, are key elements in the development of displaced abomasum.

Retained Placenta and Uterine Infection

Recent research from my laboratory at Utah State University and from the UDSA National Animal Disease Center indicates that negative nutrient balance and immune suppression may be involved in retained placenta and other uterine health disorders in dairy cows. We found that cows with retained placenta had lower feed intakes beginning one week before calving and for the first three weeks after calving, compared to cows that didn�t have retained placenta. Previous research has shown that cows with retained placenta have suppressed immune function prior to calving. We also found that cows that developed endometritis were immune suppressed, had decreased dry matter feed intakes and elevated blood non-esterified fatty acid levels beginning two weeks before calving and extending into early lactation. Cows that developed endometritis also had elevated blood ketone levels after calving. Also, cows with the lowest dry matter intake during the three week period before calving had the most severe immune suppression and cows with the highest dry matter intake had the least severe immune suppression. This research suggests that some uterine health problems in dairy cows are associated with suppressed immune function, and are preceded by negative energy balance that begins prior to calving and extends into early lactation. Since immune function and energy balance declined before the onset of these uterine health disorders, this research suggests that poor immune function and negative energy balance increase the risk of uterine health disorders developing in the fresh cows.

As uterine health disorders and displaced abomasum are common energy related diseases in dairy herds, it is recommended that efforts should be made to minimize energy deficits in dairy cows around the time of calving. Metabolic tests can be employed to monitor transition cow nutrition programs in dairy herds. Metabolic testing should focus on blood non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA) concentrations during the last two weeks before calving, and blood ketones in the first two weeks after calving. Although metabolic testing can help pinpoint the problem to the pre-calving or a post-calving period, the solution lies in improving nutrient balance in transition cows. Identifying and eliminating the bottle necks that restrict nutrient intake in transition cows is the key. Consult your nutritionist and your veterinarian for guidance on metabolic testing and reducing energy related diseases in your dairy herd.

    Encourage Dry Matter Intake in Transition Cows

    Use sound feed management practices that focus on:

  • Use of high quality forages
  • Proper feed storage to prevent spoilage
  • Consistent, accurate feed preparation
  • Proper ration formulation
  • Consistent, timely feed delivery
  • Unobstructed, unlimited access to feed
Provide for optimal cow comfort to promote maximal feed consumption.

For more information on metabolic testing in dairy cows, visit this University of Wisconsin website:

For strategies for optimizing dry matter intake in transition cows, visit this University of Nebraska website: