Ask the Vet

Low Body Condition Normal or a Medical Issue?

Cows that aren't as robust as others in the herd could just be that way due to their genetics. Other possible reasons include feed, supplements or a medical condition. To get at the answer, consider a biochemical profile. (Thinkstock photo)

Question: We have miniature whiteface Herefords. Two of our 4-year-old cows don't seem to be able to keep weight on. Both have had two healthy calves with no birthing problems. But, they just don't look as robust/healthy as all the other cattle. All the cattle have the same hay, water and mineral blocks. We get blocks high in selenium, as that is deficient in our area. The two cows at issue appear to eat and drink normally. We took their calves off them early (at 5 months of age instead of 6 months) to give them a break, but that hasn't helped. Our vet can't offer any reason for the less-than-optimal body condition. There is not a problem with worms, and they are not in a stressed environment. Any ideas?

Answer: My first step would be a comprehensive review of your nutrition program from forages (pastures and hay) to supplemental feeds and minerals, as well as your preventive health (vaccination, internal and external parasite control) and biosecurity programs.

You mentioned selenium, and mineral deficiencies are something that affects some cows more than others. Selenium is just one of the minerals that can contribute to weight loss.

If there are still no obvious issues having explored these potential problems areas, then we have to go looking.

Let's start with the basics: genetics. Anytime we single-trait select, our goal is to concentrate the genes we want. We can also concentrate less desirable genes. Certainly, size was an emphasis in creating this breed, just as the polled gene was so many years ago when Polled Herefords were becoming developed. The Horned Hereford folks used to joke when they bred the horns off, they bred the butt off, also. So, some cows might just have a bad set of genes.

Next, consider some cows are harder keeping than others. I have cows that trace back to the very first Herefords I bought in 1991, which were not easy-fleshing cows. They breed back and have great calves, but many tend toward lower body conditions.

A medical condition could be at play here, as well. BVD PI (bovine viral diarrhea persistent infected) cows are often poor doers. Johne's is a chronic bacterial disease that makes cows lose weight, but these cows will often have severe diarrhea. Anaplasmosis can present as a subclinical disease that leads to weight loss. Hardware disease is another potential problem. Just as with people, cows can have liver or kidney disease, cancer and other illnesses, all of which can lead to weight loss.

Consider having a biochemical profile done, as well as serologic or PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing for as many diseases as possible. A liver biopsy can help identify mineral deficiencies. Everything may come back completely normal, but this will help you rule out problems that could affect other cows in your herd.