Ask the Vet

What Seems Like Mastitis May Be Short-Term Problem

Things aren't always what they seem when a heifer appears to have mastitis. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Jim Patrico)


We had a heifer we had to pull a calf from. We started to milk her to give the calf colostrum, and her bag was hot and hard and the milk was a brown color. We thought we had an orphan and a cull cow on our hands. We figured the cow had mastitis. We gave the calf a colostrum replacer, and the next day it was up nursing and the milk and the bag were almost normal. What do you think was going on here?


I have seen this several times over my 38 years of practicing, and I bet it happens a lot more than we realize since we rarely see the milk of beef cows after calving unless we have a problem.

I think this happens more with heavier milkers or those whose bags fill early and release prior to calving. My theory is either inflammation or mild trauma leads to a hemorrhage in the udder in the weeks leading up to calving. As the blood breaks down, the heme pigment in hemoglobin turns to a rusty brown color. It is, after all, an iron-containing molecule. If trauma occurs close to or at calving, the milk may have a pink to red color. It may even have clots in it. It takes very little blood in milk to change color.

I doubt this is infectious mastitis, and it probably does not need to be treated. I also think if this cow completes a normal lactation and raises a good calf, this problem is not likely to recur.


Editor's Note: Please contact your veterinarian with questions pertaining to the health of your herd or other animals. Every operation is unique, and the information in this column does not pertain to all situations. This is not intended as medical advice but is purely for informational purposes.

Write Dr. Ken McMillan at Ask the Vet, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email