How To Care For Umbilical Cords In Newborn Livestock

The vast majority of all farm animals come into the world healthy, strong and without the need for any human intervention. And for the most part Mother Nature does a pretty good job when given a fair chance. But with that said, there really is no such thing as a 100% guarantee when it comes to living things.




Usually when a baby farm animal is born the umbilical cord will break without any assistance. The baby’s mother will tend to the cord with licking and nibbling while the cleansing stage of her labor is completed (the evacuation of the placenta) .

There really isn’t ever a need to cut an umbilical cord unless the cord seems to be overly long and is dragging on the ground collecting manure and dirt. If the cord is too long and you want to cut it, some people will use clean scissors dipped in alcohol for large livestock, followed up with a sturdy tie on the cord. The umbilical cords of small ruminants can be shortened without scissors by simply being pinched off with two fingers right where the cords needs shortened. It’s a little like pinching slimy wet spaghetti.

A Newborn Kerry Calf

A Newborn Kerry Calf

One problem that is more or less preventable is something called “navel ill” or “joint ill”.
Joint ill is a serious bacterial infection and a common cause of lameness in neonatal foals, calves, lambs and goat kids. The infection enters the body by way of the navel and is usually caused by strains of E. coli and Streptococcus. These bacteria tend to thrive in damp, dirty bedding and muddy paddocks or yards. Navel ill is less common when animals are born outdoors on clean open pasture.
Navel ill always requires prompt medical treatment with a long acting antibiotic. It can be fatal if not caught in time.

Often baby animals that do recover from navel-ill fail to thrive or sustain permanent damage to their joints, eyes, heart, brain or other organs.
The symptoms of navel ill are:

  • Joint stiffness
  • Warm or hot joints
  • Redness or pus around the navel
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever

The best way to prevent navel ill is by dipping or applying iodine to the umbilical cords of newborn farm animals.
In livestock the wet umbilical cord makes a perfect wick for bacteria to enter the body when it’s dragged along the ground or when the baby lays on dirty bedding or in a muddy yard.

A Lamb Umbilical Cord

A Lamb Umbilical Cord

Ensuring that all animals give birth in a clean, dry environment will significantly reduce the risk of navel- ill.
The application of an iodine navel dip or other disinfectant to the umbilical cord and navel area as soon as possible after birth will also reduce the risk of bacteria entering the body via the navel. Iodine disinfects and drys up the cord and navel area.

Dipping The Navel and Umbilical Cord Of A Newborn Lamb With Iodine

Dipping The Navel and Umbilical Cord Of A Newborn Lamb With Iodine

If I can lift the animal I apply iodine directly to the navel area with a small wide mouth bottle. Spray bottle iodine works for larger farm animal babies like calves or foals. The important thing to remember is that the navel area should be well saturated with the iodine or disinfectant. I never hesitate to re-apply iodine if the cord does not seem to be drying up within a day or so.

And speaking of neonatal health and welfare; it is imperative that all newborn animals receive colostrum milk (mothers’ first milk) within 6 hours of birth. The colostrum milk is full of maternal antibodies and will help protect young animals against disease. A belly full of colostrum can maintain a healthy baby even when the environmental conditions are less than ideal.
Good animal management practices, sanitation and old-fashioned common sense will go a long way in helping newborn livestock get off to a good start.

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