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Metabolic Diseases – Information for Lifestyle Block owners

A metabolic disease refers to the symptoms seen when there is a change (usually a decrease) in the blood levels of energy and minerals such as calcium and magnesium. These changes occur during the transition period, which covers the time approximately 3 weeks before calving/lambing to 3 weeks afterwards.

Hypocalcaemia = Milk Fever

Calcium is involved in bone formation, blood clotting, muscle function and milk production.

We see milk fever most commonly in cattle, also sheep and goats. It is rare in sows.

We usually see this in older fatter cows within 48 hours of calving.

Early signs of milk fever are muscle tremors, anorexia, wobbliness and teeth grinding. As the disease develops, the animal lies down on her chest and refuses to get up. She often has an ‘S’ shape to her neck, and she has a dry muzzle. It is considered an emergency if she is lying in lateral recumbency (on her side) and can’t sit up.

The longer the animal is ‘down’, the less likely she is to get up, due to the muscle damage. So, the aim is to get her up as soon as possible.

Treatment involves giving her extra calcium. In the early stages, oral calcium supplements (such as Calol) or a calcium rich fluid injected under the skin will often be enough. However, if she is lying on her side she generally needs intravenous calcium. A down cow is considered an urgent matter, as they can deteriorate rather quickly.

As with anything, prevention is better than cure. There are a few important things to remember if you have pregnant cows on your property:

  • Feed them a diet LOW in calcium (yes, low) during the dry period (that is, when they aren’t milking before calving).
  • Supplement with magnesium for 2-3 weeks before calving.
  • After calving – dust 150g/cow/day limeflour on the feed for 3 weeks, or give them an oral calcium liquid supplement at calving.

We have several products available for you to have on hand if you have cows due to calve and want to be prepared. Please pop in to chat with our friendly staff.

Hypomagnesaemia = Grass Staggers (NOTE: not ryegrass staggers).

This commonly occurs in cows fed on lush rapidly growing grass. This tends to be low in magnesium. You will see your recently calved cow with muscle spasms, which leads to staggering and incoordination and eventually convulsions. They can be hyper-excitable and can sometimes be aggressive – be aware of your own safety around these girls! Grass staggers commonly occurs after calving as there is a higher requirement for magnesium when the cow is lactating.

Subclinically, a low magnesium level is often associated with an increased incidence of milk fever in your herd of cows.

Treatment involves injecting a bolus of magnesium sulphate 20% UNDER THE SKIN. Note: this must NOT be given into the vein. Alternatively, a combination of magnesium and calcium can be given intravenously, as these cows are often low in calcium as well.

Prevention of grass staggers can be implemented in many different ways:

  • An oral magnesium bullet given 3-10 days before calving. This gives up to 4 weeks of magnesium.
  • A magnesium salt block – this would be enough for beef breeds.
  • Magnesium oxide which is a powder you add to their feed (hay, meal etc).
  • Magnesium chloride or magnesium sulphate added to their water.



This is when the animal gets itself into a negative energy balance. In cows it is most commonly seen in high producing cows post calving. These are dairy cows producing litres of milk a day. It is rare to see a cow with ketosis on a lifestyle block as generally they are not high milk producers and have plenty of feed available.

What we see on lifestyle blocks involves sheep in late pregnancy, with a syndrome called Pregnancy Toxaemia (or sleepy sickness). This is when there is not enough glucose (or energy) absorbed in late pregnancy to match the demand of the growing lambs. This is due to the full uterus taking up too much space in the abdomen, hence sheep carrying twins or triplets are more at risk. Very fat/overweight ewes are prone as well.

We often see a spate of this in very bad weather, if sheep have very little shelter, or if sheep are transported in late pregnancy. You will see one or more of the following signs:

  • Separating themselves from the group
  • Apparent blindness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lying down more often
  • Wool easily plucked
  • Aimless walking
  • Muscle twitching
  • Teeth grinding
  • Wobbliness/weakness
  • Lying on their chest, leading to coma and death

Early treatment is best – you can give a product called Ketol daily. This can be purchased from the clinic. If the illness has advanced, please call the clinic for a visit to your farm.

Prevention is better than cure so the golden rule is not to underfeed your pregnant ewes, and ensure they are not obese!

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