Nutrition: What Causes Metritis?

November 1, 2011 10:21 AM


A client recently called because a few of his fresh cows were developing metritis. He is an excellent manager and observes his cows very closely.

I was convinced that this was not a fluke. Something had changed which resulted in this spike in metritis. But what causes metritis?

Other transition-cow disorders such as milk fever, ketosis and retained placenta have definite nutritional components. But metritis?

A paper presented this past April at the Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference in Fort Wayne, Ind., sheds some light on the question. Low dry matter intake before calving is correlated to increased incidence of metritis, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia.

The obvious link here is that low feed consumption prior to calving leads to a suppressed immune system, which in turn makes it more difficult for the cow to fight off infections. That’s important because cows that are diagnosed with metritis are twice as likely to be culled due to reproductive issues and reduced milk production.

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But which comes first? Does reduced intake lead to higher incidence of metritis, or does a uterine infection reduce intake because the cow just isn’t feeling well? The Canadian researchers observed that cows had suppressed intakes three weeks before metritis was detected. So it may be that both scenarios are true.

Cows in the close-up group that held back and didn’t compete well at the feedbunk were more likely to develop metritis after calving. Every 10-minute decline in feeding time resulted in a doubling of the odds that that cow would develop metritis.

The socially subordinate cows—the "herd nerds" that aren’t motivated to find a spot at the bunk, especially after fresh feed is delivered or during peak feeding times, such as returning from the parlor—are the ones to watch. Low-feed consumption during the transition period reduces energy and protein intake, as well as the minerals and vitamins that help support the immune system.

Regrouping cows, even in the close-up and fresh groups, upsets the social structure of the herd. These moves are often unavoidable. Providing clean, comfortable pens and adequate stalls in the close-up and fresh pens will reduce the negative effects of these moves. Providing plenty of feedbunk space especially helps the "herd nerds."

Frequent delivery of fresh feed in these groups will also encourage feed intake. This can be challenging if cow numbers don’t allow sufficient volume to mix a total mixed ration; frequent feed push-ups will encourage timid cows to eat.

The feeding behavior of individual cows two to three weeks before calving provides clues about which animals are at higher risk of metritis as well as other transition problems. Noting these cows, followed by close examination after calving, may help you get a leg up on metritis.

In my client’s case, the weather was extremely hot about two weeks before the metritis was diagnosed. Intakes dropped in all groups, including the close-ups. This probably led to suppressed immune systems, which contributed to the higher incidence of metritis in his herd two weeks later.

RICK LUNDQUIST is an independent nutrition and management consultant based in Duluth, Minn.
You can contact him at

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