[Skip to Content]

Dairy Cattle
Illinois Livestock Trail
NOTICE - This information has been archived and may contain outdated content.
Drenching Fresh Cows
by Mike Hutjens, Extension Dairy Specialist, University of Illinois, Urbana

Transition cow management (three weeks before calving to three weeks after calving) is critical to farm economics and health survival. Cows are at high risk to a number of metabolic disorders that can cost dairy managers big dollars. Cornell workers reported the following losses associated with each case of the following metabolic disorders.

Milk fever $334
Displaced abomasums $340
Retained placenta $285
Ketosis $145

These costs include veterinarian treatment costs, added labor, discarding of milk due to antibiotic treatment (if needed), lost milk during the lactation, higher culling rates, and death losses (in some cases). Drenching cows with water and nutrients is not a new concept on dairy farms. On our Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1950's, fresh cows would be offered a five gallon bucket of warm water immediately after calving containing a handful of mineral to improve the release of the after birth and cleaning. With a drenching program, cows received predetermined amount of feed ingredients mixed in a fixed volume of water immediately after calving without waiting for voluntary consumption.

Field Experiences and Observations

Dairy managers use a Magrath pump (a commercially available unit used by veterinarians) to pump five to fifteen gallons of water in the rumen of the cow. Larger volumes (15 gallons of water represents over 120 pounds) may be beneficial to replace the space (volume) and weight lost when the calf, fluids, and membranes are lost at calving (can represent 120 to 170 pounds) plus rehydrate the cow. Minnesota workers report water volume is important (more research is being conducted). Drenching as soon as possible after calving is a plus to provide key electrolytes and nutrients along with the water. One receipt recommended by Iowa workers is listed below.

  • 1 to 1 ½ pounds of calcium propionate
  • 300 millliliters of propylene glycol
  • ¼ to ½ pound of yeast culture
  • ¼ pound of potassium chloride
  • ¼ to ½ pound of magnesium sulfate
  • 1/10 pound of sodium chloride

Additional items that can be added to the drench mixture include ¼ to ½ pound of sodium phosphate, organic source of trace minerals, probiotics, protected choline, sodium bicarbonate, rumen fluid from a donor animal, and alfalfa leaf meal.

Role of Drench Ingredients

Calcium propionate provides a rapid source of absorbable calcium. The propionate fraction is converted to blood glucose as an energy source. This product targets low blood calcium (hypocalcemia), milk fever, and ketosis.

Propylene glycol is a source of blood glucose for the cow targeting ketosis and low dry matter intake.

Yeast culture can stimulate fiber-digesting bacteria, reduce lactic acid levels in the rumen, and maintain a favorable rumen environment. This product targets higher dry matter intake and minimizes off-feed problems.

Potassium chloride and sodium chloride replaces lost electrolytes during the calving process and improve blood mineral balance.

Magnesium sulfate is a source of magnesium that can be low in the blood at calving (targets low blood magnesium that can be related to milk fever). Cows regulate magnesium by absorption, not bone or tissue mobilization.

Sodium phosphate is a source of phosphorous if your veterinarian diagnoses low blood phosphorous levels (targets milk fever-like problems).

Organic trace minerals can raise blood mineral levels improving immune function and combat disease challenges.

Probiotics are microbes that can stimulate rumen fermentation and dry matter intake. New products are commercially available with solid field research results.

Alfalfa leaf meal is a rumen fermentable source of protein and carbohydrates. I would prefer to allow the cow to consume this forage resource (relative feed value over 150) as long forage to maintain or build a forage raft in the rumen. Alfalfa leaf meal is also difficult get in solution and pump based to field reports.

Sodium bicarbonate would provide a source of sodium (electrolyte source) and buffer the rumen pH for optimal digestion and dry matter intake.

Protected choline could serve a methyl donor and export fat (lipid) out of the liver is fatty liver syndrome is a risk.

Rumen fluid has also been added to drench mixtures if a fistulated cow, heifer, or steer is on the farm. Field reports indicate cows off-feed respond quickly to rumen fluid drenches.

Field Results with Drenching

Texas A & M conducted a field study with 110 mature cows and 58 heifers. Cows were drench with 2.5 gallons of water (control), 2.5 gallons of water plus 10 ounces of propylene glycol (PG), or 2.5 gallons of water with 24 ounces of calcium propionate (Cal Prop). Results are summarized in Table 1. The treated cows responded with more milk. Propylene glycol treated cows had lower levels of blood ketones (BHBA or beta hydroxy butyric acid) and a trend in NEFA (non-esterified fatty acids reflecting less fat mobilization).

Wisconsin extension workers drenched fresh cows in two large herds (in Fondu Lac and Kewanee counties) with rumen field (four gallons of warm water and one gallon of rumen fluid), five gallons of warm water (water), or no drench (control). Production results are summarized in Table 2. Rumen fluid drenched in this experiment did not improve early lactation milk response, rectal temperatures, or metabolic disorders (milk fever, ketosis, DA, off-feed, lame, mastitis, retained placenta, or metritis.

Managing Drench Systems

Cost is significant with these programs. Drench products can vary from three to eight dollars per treatment depending on the source, ingredients, and the level of ingredients included. Drenching cows is not easy requiring skilled and strong labor resources, facilities to confine cows, and management commitment. Dairy managers report a second and third drench may be needed if cows do not respond or appear dull and listless. The volume of water can be reduced in successive drench procedures after the first treatment. If you can successful manipulate transition cow diets and minimize metabolic disorders, drenching may not be needed on your farm.

Table 1. Production and blood parameter changes related to propylene glycol (PG) and calcium propionate (Cal Prop) treatments in a Texas field study.

Item Control PG Cal Prop
Milk (lb/day) 87 (a) 94 (b) 91 (ab)
NEFA (meq/dl) 530 (a) 470 (lb) 540 (a)
BHBA (mg/dl) 6.2 (a) 5.9 (a) 6.5 (a)

Different letters indicate a significant difference from other values.

Table 2. Production responses in cows received rumen fluid drench and water drench treatments compared to control cows in Wisconsin field studies.

Measurement Control Water Rumen Fluid
  --------------------(lb milk/day)------------------
Herd 1 (300 cows)      
Milk yield (1-30 days) 62.9 59.6 60.3
Milk yield (30-60 days) 87.0 81.1 77.0
Herd 2 (189 cows)      
DHI test 1 77.4 74.0 73.3
DHI test 2 85.1 80.8 81.3

« Back to Dairy Cattle