Ask the Vet

Dairy Bull Calves Present Problems

After a calf is born, umbilical hernias can occur when the umbilical cord doesn't wither away and the body wall doesn't seal as it should. Holsteins have a high documented incidence of this. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Robert Waggener)


We raise calves off of dairy farms, and sometimes we get a bull calf with a rupture that shows up by the navel at around 8 to 10 weeks of age. Why is this happening?


These are most likely umbilical hernias. The umbilical cord carries nutrition and removes waste between the dam and the fetus. When the calf is born, that cord should wither away, and the body wall should seal. If that doesn't happen, there is a weakened area where organs can fall through, including the intestines. This can become larger over time, and if the intestines become strangulated, the calf can die.

Another possibility, based on what you describe, is an infected navel (navel ill). In this case, the umbilical cord is infected and swells. This type of infection can actually lead to infection in other parts of the body, including the joints (joint ill).

If this is a hernia, hernias are soft and can usually be pushed back into the abdomen. If it is navel ill, it is usually hard and can be hot and painful. Umbilical hernias are a recognized genetic defect in cattle and have their highest documented incidence in Holsteins.

Hernias can be repaired surgically with a high rate of success. Navel ill is typically treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.