With spring calving underway, it is a good time to consider which products you need in your calving kit to care for both cow and calf. In this article we will consider the importance of treating navels, the current options available, new products and important actions farmers can take to improve their calf health.

Why is navel care important, & what leads to successful management?

During pregnancy, the umbilical cord is a hollow tube which connects the calf to the cow allowing the transfer of blood and nutrition to the fetus as it develops. During calving the cord breaks and ceases to have a function. However, if it isn’t treated appropriately the broken cord (aka ‘the navel’) acts as a tube between the calf’s abdomen and the environment. This allows bacteria and other disease-causing agents to enter the calf’s bloodstream – spreading to other major organs including the liver (fig. 1).

Poor navel care doesn’t just lead to navel infections. Approximately 29 % of wider-body illness in calves can be attributed to poor navel care. Consequences of poor navel care include navel ill, joint ill, septicaemia, pneumonia, and meningitis.

There are three main pillars to ensuring good navel care:


keeping calving pens clean and dry will reduce the bacterial load in the environment that the calf is born into. It is important that calves are kept in a clean environment for several days after birth, to reduce the risk of any infectious agents entering the calf’s bloodstream via the navel. Deep beds of clean, dry straw provide a good starting point.


It won’t be a surprise to anyone that colostrum appears on this list.  To quote the AHDB #colostrumisgold after all! With no transfer of antibodies in utero colostrum is essential for the development of the calf’s immune system.  Ensure all calves are provided with sufficient quantities of colostrum ( > 3 litres) of a suitable quality ( > 50 g/L of IgG , or a Brix score > 22 %), within the first two hours. This should be followed up with another feed inside the first twelve hours of life.


The two main aims of successful navel treatment after birth, are to provide disinfection and desiccation (drying). 

How to pick a product for navel care

Any product used for treating navels should have antiseptic or disinfectant properties.

Products used for the treatment of navels should also cause desiccation of the navel, as this will reduce the time taken for it to dry out and shrivel up, preventing entry of bacteria via the navel. Most products use an alcohol-based formulation (e.g. surgical spirit) to cause desiccation.

We know that the navel can take several days to dry out and close up, therefore, the ideal product would persist as a barrier for the first three to four days of life.  Alternatively, the navel should be treated for the first three to four days, especially if the environment is dirty.

It is common that dams, or other calves, will lick disinfectants from the navel of their calves – if this is happening in your herd then re-treating navels is paramount.

What are the current practices and their shortcomings?

The most frequently used products for treating navels are iodine-based products, antibiotic sprays, and neat surgical spirit preparations.

Iodine-based products. A variety of products have been available over the years, and some vets/farmers may opt to prepare their own mixes. For an iodine-based navel-care product to be effective it must contain 7 % or 10 % iodine, and surgical spirit (or another alcohol component).

These strong iodine-based preparations can cause unwanted inflammation in the calf. They may also cause irritation or allergic reactions on the hands of farm staff.

In recent years there have also been supply issues with iodine, leading to an increase of navel-ill and joint-ill outbreaks.

The antiseptic properties of an iodine-based product have historically been overestimated. Recent studies demonstrated that the antiseptic agent in iodine products used for the disinfection of calves starts to disappear fifteen minutes after treatment; which is why multiple doses are now recommended.

Another common navel treatment is oxytetracycline spray(or other ‘wound spray’ or ‘antibiotic spray’) on the navel of newborn calves after birth. Unfortunately, this provides minimal benefit to the calf, and may encourage antimicrobial resistance. Because the navel is wet when these water-based sprays are applied the product usually runs off within minutes – providing neither disinfection nor desiccation. These products do not contain any alcohol-based component, and do not increase the desiccation of the navel either – meaning that it stays wet and susceptible to infection for longer.

Surgical spirit preparations. These are occasionally used and tend to be applied as a spray rather than a dip. The alcohol component will lead to effective desiccation, however, because it is a neat surgical spirit it will evaporate quickly and have limited effect. Therefore, several applications are required. Once the product evaporates, no barrier or disinfectant action remains.

To spray or to dip?

This is a question which vets are often asked. It is essential that there is full coverage of the umbilicus/navel across a full 360˚ and the entire length. Spraying can be fiddly, require multiple sprays, and can make it difficult to ensure 100 % coverage. Meanwhile, dipping tends to provide better 360˚ coverage and is often easier to perform correctly. When dipping it is important to dip the entire navel, all the way to the body wall.

Think of the navel as a paper straw and the dip-cup as a jug of cream. If you dip the straw in the cream, you will be fully coating the straw on all sides, on the end and drawing some up as a ‘plug’ on the straw. If you were just to spritz the straw with the cream you wouldn’t get as thick a covering, get any on the end of the straw, or successfully plug the end of the straw.

It is recommended to use a dip-cup with a non-return valve, as it allows you to squeeze up enough product for one navel into the cup and fully submerge the navel, without any backflow causing contamination of the rest of the disinfectant. A teat dip-cup, like you’d use in the parlour, is an excellent device to use for dipping navels.

Where can management be improved?

Now we know that the effect of a single dose of iodine does not persist for as long as we first thought, multiple applications or long-lasting products are one obvious way to improve navel care on farms. This is particularly important in bull calves, as their navels take longer to dry up than heifers.

Hygiene of the calf’s environment for the first week of life is just as important as the hygiene of the calving pen itself. Ensuring calves have clean and dry bedding, and that navels are checked daily, will go a long way to reducing the risk of infection.

New products on the market provide an iodine-free approach to navel care. One such product is Nobacz navel (Nobacz Healthcare). Nobacz navel provides disinfection and desiccation with a strong alcohol content. It has been demonstrated to dry the navel within two hours of application – much faster than the traditional products used.

The product then forms a protective coating over the navel which acts as a barrier protecting the navel and preventing bacterial contamination. To overcome dams licking the product off the navel, Nobacz navel contains a bitter-tasting component to deter interference.


Navel treatment is an important part of caring for the newborn calf, and picking an appropriate product for this will maximise the success of treatment and reduce health problems observed in calves. If the product used doesn’t provide a long-term barrier then multiple applications should be carried out. It is also important to keep an eye out for dams licking products off the navel – rendering them useless.

The sooner the navel is dipped, the less time it is exposed to bacteria in the environment.

Alongside treating navels with an appropriate product, good hygiene and adequate colostrum provision are vital for reducing navel infections in calves.

Whichever product is used, navels should be checked daily for the first 5-7 days of life, and any painful swellings or inflammation should be treated in accordance with veterinary advice.

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