Changes in Iodine Availability for Dipping Calf Navels at Birth

Mrs. Dianne Shoemaker, Extension Dairy Specialist, OSU Extension Center at Wooster (top of page)

Completing one of the critical steps in newborn calf care will now take a little more planning.  Having a constant supply of 7% tincture of iodine on the farm is more important than it was less than a month ago as the product is no longer available at local or through mail-order farm supply outlets.

Question: Why is 7% tincture of iodine no longer available at retail stores or through catalogs for dipping calf navels?

Answer:  Creative illegal drug manufacturers and unscrupulous livestock supply dealers conspired to use 7% iodine to produce iodine crystals which were then used to produce methamphetamines.  As a result, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) moved iodine, previously designated as a list 2 chemical, to a list 1 chemical.  For us, that means that the DEA will now regulate sales of all products containing more than 2.2% iodine.

Question:  Can I still purchase 7% iodine to dip calf navels?

Answer:  Yes, but it can only be purchased through a vendor who is registered to handle controlled products.  It is likely that your veterinarian is registered to handle other DEA controlled substances and may also carry 7% iodine for their clients.  It will mean extra paperwork for the veterinarian's business.  Talk to them before your current supply runs out!

Question:  So, why bother dipping navels at all?

Answer:  An important step in newborn calf care is dipping the calf's umbilical cord in a 7% tincture of iodine as soon after birth as possible.  A tincture contains alcohol.  The alcohol provides drying action, while the iodine has disinfectant properties.  It is a long-held belief that this management practice plays a large role in preventing navel ill and other infections.

Logically, it makes sense.  The umbilical cord is the calf's lifeline in the uterus, delivering nutrients and removing wastes during gestation.  Following birth, it no longer serves those functions, but it is still a direct route into the calf's body until total closure takes place.  Nature provides for the umbilical cord to close off, dry off, fall off, and heal over, just as nature provides for the calf to receive passive immunity through the dam's colostrum.  Our management practices of navel dipping and hand-feeding colostrum are designed to help nature do its job.

Question:  Is there a good substitute for 7% tincture of iodine?

Answer:  Possibly, but right now anyone who tells you anything specific is probably guessing.  A quick search of past and current research turns up no studies on this topic specifically

Question:  Why not use one of the iodine-based teat dips?

Answer:  We do know teat dips are not effective as navel dips.  Iodine-based teat dips contain 1% iodine or less.  They also don't contain the alcohols comparable to an iodine tincture.  Tinctures containing 2% iodine will still be available over the counter.  A short-term patch would be to use these for several days in a row until the umbilical cord is completely dried.  Realistically, most farms are doing well to get a navel dipped once in 7% iodine, let alone re-dipping two or three more times.

Dipping navels in 7% tincture of iodine is an important management practice, helping to minimize illness and death loss in dairy calves.  Keeping an adequate supply on hand will take a little more planning since the product is now a USDEA List 1 chemical.  Don't use this change as an excuse not to dip calf navels.  Eventually, a calf or calves will fall victim to septicemia or navel ill.  Don't let your calves be victims of illegal drugs.