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Hygiene and monitoring prevents ruminal drinking in calves

Ruminal drinking makes calves very ill with a serious risk of death. There is no simple treatment or cure. Luckily, with the right measures, you can seriously reduce the risk of ruminal drinking.

Under normal circumstances, the milk drunk by a calf travels straight to its fourth stomach. If the reticular groove reflex is disrupted, the milk travels directly to the rumen. It's also possible that after drinking too much milk, or water after the milk, that some will run back into the rumen. This disrupts the digestion process, resulting in bloating and in faeces resembling clay after a few days. This is why ruminal drinkers are sometimes referred to as 'clay defecators'.

Symptoms of ruminal drinking

Calves suffering from ruminal drinking become bloated on the left-hand side of their body, due to gas building up in the rumen. They drink less/poorly, and sometimes get colic-like (stomach cramps) symptoms. Their hair becomes prickly and the eyes turn dull and drowsy. After around five days, a ruminal drinker becomes a clay defecator. The faeces are like putty – tough, grey and firm.

The calf stops growing because it no longer digests food properly and the rumen development is severely disrupted. The pelt becomes dull and dry and the calf loses weight.

How to prevent ruminal drinking in calves 

The key words for prevention of ruminal drinking in calves are: hygiene, monitoring and correct feeding. Concrete measures:

  • Do not give water directly after the milk, wait for approximately an hour.
  • Position the water trough a number of metres away from the drinking machine.
  • Prevent the calf from bending deeply to drink. This is an unnatural posture and not good for the reticular groove reflex.
  • Supply milk in the correct concentration: 1 kg powder to 6-7 litre water, 125–150 grams per litre
  • Mix the calf milk correctly and feed at set times.
  • Supply the milk at the right temperature (40–41 °C), and definitely not too cold.
  • Work with clean materials – clean buckets and mixers after feeding.
  • When using weaning buckets: check the teat and replace it regularly.
  • When using a drinking machine: check the powder dosage and temperature and clean the outflow opening regularly.
  • If calves are ill (e.g. lung problems), then adjust the feed volumes.

Treating ruminal drinking

The treatment for ruminal drinking is as follows:

  • Rinse the rumen by pouring warm water into the rumen through a tube and then emptying the rumen through the same tube. Push the head of the calf down and push the rumen up. This will drain the mess from the rumen. This will work only partially or not at all if there is too much (feed) structure in the rumen.
  • If rinsing doesn't work, give the calf water alone for two days so the rumen can empty naturally.
  • Do not add electrolytes, as sugars are converted and can cause gas.
  • Give the calf the space to move and walk around.
  • After rinsing the rumen, you can once again start feeding milk using a weaning bucket. Use a new teat, hang the bucket 80–100 cm high and supply the milk warm. Start off with 1 litre of milk twice daily. Also supply at least four litres of warm water in the afternoon and evening.
  • If no negative reaction occurs, then increase the milk supply gradually.
  • Supply hay or lucerne to get the rumen going again. Do not feed pellets for the first week. Give the calf a vitamin and mineral injection to boost immunity.

Health risks on your farm?

Want to take the appropriate measures to prevent calf disease on your farm? Ask the Sprayfo rearing specialist in your region. 

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Prevention of disease in calves

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How good is your calves' immunity? Discuss your approach to disease prevention
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