The Three M-words

There are many ills and ailments breeding animals can go down with, but three that spring to mind that all involved the letter M are Milk Fever, Mastitis and Magnesium Deficiency (known as Grass Staggers, but that’s not an M word).

And coincidentally, we’ve had a brush with all 3 in the last 12 months!

Milk Fever – Hypocalcaemia. Where blood calcium levels are too low in an animal which has recently given birth or is in lactation.


Maisie the cow greeted us one morning with a clean, dry, bouncy calf with a full belly of milk. We couldn’t have asked for better than that!

But later that afternoon, we found her laid down, unable to get up. Her neck was bent around towards her back slightly in what’s called an S-bend, a characteristic sign of milk fever, and her muscles were too weak for her to stand.

She needed calcium, quickly.

We always keep some in stock because, although milk fever is more common in dairy cows because they’re producing a lot more milk so have a much higher need for calcium, it can also happen sometimes in beef cows that are older, or ones that milk hard, like Maisie, who’s a dairy cross beef cow.

Their blood calcium levels are maintained by a gland next to the thyroid that secretes certain hormones. When they’ve just calved, they suddenly need a lot of extra calcium per day than they did before they were producing milk, and if their calcium doesn’t raise quickly enough, milk fever happens.

We’ve only ever had mild cases before that were resolved with a bottle of calcium being injected under their skin, but Maisie didn’t show any signs of improvement from that.

We ended up asking a friend, who coincidentally bred her from one of their dairy cows, to come and give her calcium into her vein. It’s a quicker way of raising their calcium levels than giving it under the skin, but as we’ve only had mild cases, which were few and far between, we’ve never had to know how to do that to treat a severe case.

Thankfully, she made a speedy recovery and in less than half an hour, was standing again- although she’s called Lazy Maisie for a reason, so needed a bit of encouragement to get up, even though she was feeling better! And thanks to our Good Samaritan, my dad now knows how to give IV calcium for any future cases.

You’d never know she was so poorly now!

Maisie & her calf

Mastitis – Infection of the mammary glands causing inflammation of the udder.


Our brush with Mastitis took quite a lot longer to resolve.

Essie the cow calved with tonnes of milk, too much.

She, like quite a few of our cows, has her 4 main teats and 2 blind ones- or what we thought were blind ones… But it seems one of them has its own mammary gland attached to it and produces its own milk, and it was that one that got mastitis- likely caused by a bacterial infection in it.

Her udder was sore, warm and slightly red and swollen, and the milk coming out of that teat was lumpy and had some flecks of blood in – all the classic signs of mastitis.

Every day, she had to have the infected quarter, for want of a better word (I know a quarter means 4 and since this is her 5th one, that description doesn’t really work, but we’re going with it), milked out and have a course of antibiotics, given by a tube up her teat, to treat the infection.

With some time and patience, the infection was cured and the milk returned to normal and became palatable to her calf again. Plus, her calf grew a bit and began needing more milk, which meant he actually started sucking all her teats instead of just his favourites, which no doubt helped keep them infection free!

We’re hoping that her 5th teat’s mammary gland was permanently damaged by the mastitis and will no longer produce milk, then there’s less chance of this happening again! We’ll definitely have to keep a close eye on her in future years though.

Grass Staggers – Hypomagnesaemia. Low magnesium levels in the blood of a cow or sheep, usually one which has given birth and is feeding their offspring or being milked. Usually seen in Spring or Autumn.


Staggers is something we had never actually seen a case of until this year, and I hope to never see it again!

The most risky times for magnesium deficiency are the Spring and Autumn, where the grass is lush and has a high water content and low fibre content, meaning it passes through the animal quickly, reducing the time for minerals to be absorbed from it.

We always have buckets in the fields containing a lick made from molasses that’s got added magnesium to try and avoid Staggers at those times of the year, but in this case, the cow must not have licked enough of it.

Thankfully, the vet was here for another issue when I saw Splodge the cow laid out flat in the field, paddling with her legs and twitching – all signs of seizure activity that indicates she was quite severely affected.

When approached, she struggled to her feet and began to stagger around the field (the incoordination is where Staggers gets its name from).

We were really lucky to spot her in time because usually, you find them already dead; magnesium deficiency can kill them extremely quickly.

The vet was able to give her magnesium, after managing to get close enough to her, as the disease can make them quite nervous and skittish, and as the day went on, she became less wobbly.

She’s now fully recovered and somehow managed to remain pregnant, despite the near-death experience!

Hopefully, we won’t see any of these dreaded M-words again next year!

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