Management Can Prevent Ulcers

Proper feeding can prevent abomasal ulcers. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Abomasal ulcers in calves are one of the most frustrating problems dairy owners have to deal with. There can be many factors that cause ulcers, therefore prevention can consist of several procedures designed to improve the health and integrity of the mucosal sur-face of the abomasum. 

Calves most commonly develop abomasal ulcers from 4 to 12 weeks of age. The majority of the affected calves have ulcers that are subclinical and are not bleeding. Previous studies suggest the incidence of abomasal erosions might be as high as 75% of calves, depending on the conditions they are raised under. 

A high percentage of calves with ulcers don’t show symptoms and are difficult to diagnose. If signs are present, the most common is mild abdominal pain and irregular appetite. Symptoms escalate as ulcers become more severe, and the worst cases can result in death.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of dealing with abomasal ulcers is trying to determine the underlying cause and what can be done to reduce the incidence of future cases.

High cortisol levels are associated with an increase in abomasal ulcers. Reducing stress will help reduce these levels. Animals under stress will have a reduced ability to mount an effective immune response, and it is common for the movement of the gastrointestinal tract to slow down as well. This creates a problem with slowing down of the abomasal emptying time, which is thought to contribute to the formation of abomasal ulcers. 

Studies have shown some association with enteric bacteria and abomasal ulcers. The negative effect of cortisol on the animal’s immune system could also contribute to the growth of these bacteria in the abomasal wall.

The indiscriminate use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs will definitely increase the incidence of ulcers. Protocols should be reviewed with those responsible for calf care to make sure these drugs are used in the correct amount and time specified by the veterinarian. 

Feeding Process

Probably the single issue most associated with abomasal ulcers is problems with the feeding process. The problems might include the following:

  • Inconsistencies in feeding times and volume per feeding.
  • Variation in milk temperature and percent solids.
  • High milk replacer osmolality.
  • Feeding extremely high volumes of milk.
  • Poor quality milk replacer that does not stay in solution or has poor digestibility.
  • Feeding only once per day.
  • Feeding unpasteurized hospital milk high in bacteria.
  • Poor hygiene of bottles or buckets used to feed calves or tanks and hoses used to distribute milk.

Many milk feeding programs can be complicated, especially with computerized feeders. Design a program that allows the calf to gradually increase starter consumption while receiving a more constant volume of milk. Once the calf is eating a sufficient amount of starter, milk can be gradually reduced during the weaning process.

Some studies have shown a relationship between the presence of Clostridium perfringens type A and abomasal ulcers. As a result, it’s recommended herds experiencing issues with ulcers vaccinate calves early in life against this organism.

Some herds have reported an increase of ulcers coinciding with respiratory disease. This is most likely due to stress and higher cortisol levels as well as variations in feed intake. Once the issue with respiratory disease was corrected, the incidence of abomasal ulcers dropped as well. 

Careful review of the management, environmental conditions, stress factors and feeding procedures will almost always reveal problem areas that can predispose calves to abomasal ulcers. Finding and resolving these problem areas should significantly reduce losses due to abomasal ulcers.  


Bob Corbett consults with dairies on a variety of management areas, including mastitis, reproduction, computer analysis and nutrition.

Note: This story appears in the February 2018 magazine issue of Dairy Herd Management.