Fluid Therapy for Sick Cows: To Pump or Not To Pump

Date of publication : 6/26/2008
Source : Dairy Pipeline - Virginia Cooperative Extension
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There are many diseases affecting cows on dairy farms today. These diseases include milk fever, retained placenta, metritis, ketosis, mastitis, lameness, rumen indigestion, and displaced abomasums. These diverse diseases have one thing in common—they often cause cows to have significantly reduced feed intakes. As in humans, nutrient intake in cattle is key in helping the cow overcome the disease. Both veterinarians and farmers have become very good at primary treatment of these diseases. Getting the cow started back on feed will help ensure a better recovery rate for your patients. In the past these cows often received “pink pills” which contain magnesium hydroxide, a powerful alkalinizing agent. Years ago when most cows were slug fed grain in the parlor and received limited forage on the bunk many may have suffered from grain overload, leading to the severe acidosis these pills are designed to treat. In today’s herds, while subclinical rumen acidosis can be a big problem, it is unusual to see cases of severe acidosis. In fact, the rumen of cows that have been offfeed for more 24 hours is usually very alkaline. The normal bacterial flora of the rumen can survive and thrive around pH 7. If the pH becomes too high many more bacteria will die off leading to cows that are more difficult to get started back on feed.

People often overlook other things that can be done to increase the success rate in treating these diseases. Fluid therapy is one of the most beneficial things that can be done for cows that are off feed. Fluid therapy provides the nutrient that cattle have the highest requirement for: water.Several of the diseases mentioned above cause dehydration both from reduced intake and diarrhea. An adult dairy cow can easily tolerate 10 gallons of water being administered into the rumen. At least five gallons need to be administered if a significant difference is going to be made for the cow. High volumes of fluids can be administered by either the Cattle Pump System® (Magrath Company), the AAS® drench system (Advanced Agri Systems), or a homemade gravity flow system. Each of these systems allows one person to quickly administer large volumes of fluids.

Fluid therapy also provides a convenient method for administering other nutrients to the cow. These nutrients fall in to four categories: minerals, nutritional support for the cow, nutritional support for the rumen bugs, and rumen microbes. Many commercial products are available that can be added to the water. These products vary greatly in content and expense. Table 1 contains guidelines for evaluating these products. Calcium is probably the most important thing that can be added. Sixty to 100 grams of calcium are needed. Salt should be added at a rate of 120-160 grams and potassium chloride at a rate of 90 grams. A glucose precursor is important for preventing or treating ketosis. Sixteen ounces of propylene glycol, or 12 ounces of propionate once a day is sufficient. Megalac® can be added to provide additional energy for the cow. Ground alfalfa meal is a good source of nutrients for the rumen bugs. Three to five pounds can be added to the mix. Lactobacillus and yeast fermentation products are the most common microbe products that are commercially available.

Table 1. Nutrient requirements for an adequate dairy cow drench




0.5 lbs


Calcium and Propionate

1 pound

Fresh Cow YMCP®

Calcium, Propionate, Lactobacillus

90 grams KCl

50 lb bag KCl


160 grams NaCl

50 lb bag white salt


0.5 lbs

Diamond V Yeast®


3 lbs

50 lb bag ground alfalfa meal


Table 2. A homemade recipe for making your own drench






60-100 grams


Propylene Glycol
or Propionate

16 ounces
12 ounces


Potassium Chloride (KCl)

90 grams


Alfalfa Meal

3-5 lbs


Salt (NaCl)

120-160 grams






0.25-0.5 lbs



0.5-1 lbs

There are numerous commercial drenches on the market. Some of these drenches are very good and contain most everything you could want in a drench. Others do not contain enough Ca and other ingredients to be as beneficial as the more complete drenches. Both AAS drench from Advanced Agri Solutions and BC Dairy Drench from Renaissance Nutrition are complete drenches that are readily available to Virginia dairy producers.

John Currin, Extension Dairy Veterinarian
Dairy Pipeline Newsletter - Virginia Cooperative Extension

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