There comes a time in every dairy farmer’s life, that calves seem to be getting sick with no explanation. You think you are doing everything correctly, but your calves are getting sick at an alarming rate. It is one of your worst nightmares.

The calves that get sick are already a week or two old and should be thriving. You now have to try to remedy the situation and lots of times, it ends in a loss. Those losses are not good for the future of your farm and your livelihood.

What Causes Calf Sickness?

There are many different causes for a calf to get sick in the first few weeks of life. Most illnesses are caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi, drastic weather or temperature changes, and stress. Stressful events in a calf’s life include the weaning period, dehorning, castration, transportation to other dairies, commingling with other animals, overcrowding in the pens and at the feeding stations, and having poor air ventilation in the calf pen. 

Calf Sickness Signs

How does stress affect a calf and cause sickness? Calves grow so rapidly during those first few weeks of life and have immature immune systems. So, events like moving to a new pen can cause stress if they have not had the proper amount of colostrum or received poor quality colostrum during those first two feedings, making them susceptible to getting bacteria into their systems. They can get salmonella from improperly pasteurized and stored milk and colostrum. Also, with poor quality or inadequate colostrum intake, calves can develop pneumonia due to the fact they had a failure in or incomplete passive transfer of immunity from the colostrum they received. 

Also, there are environmental stressors, like not having decent airflow in the calf pens, where the pungent smells can overwhelm their immature system and result in those toxins entering their lungs. Stress can also be caused by having too many calves in one area, where they are competing for feed or touching nose to nose. Here they aren’t getting enough feed and water, or getting germs passed by touching noses, or looking for food in not so clean places. Their young bodies can’t regulate temperature changes rapidly, which also causes stress to their systems. 

Signs of Sickness to Look For:

Some common signs of sickness that you should be on the lookout for are much like common signs you see and notice when you or your children are sick. Those signs include: 

  • Fever of 104+ degrees-normal healthy calf temperatures ranges from 101-102 degrees. You will need to take this temperature rectally.
  • Coughing or labored breathing-normal healthy calves take about 30 breaths per minute, which is nearly twice that of a human.
  • Unusual discharge from the eyes or nose
  • Loss of appetite, either not eating all their milk or not eating at all.
  • Diarrhea that is either loose and bubbly or bloody
  • They have dull eyes, droopy ears, bowed back, and are not alert. They won’t get up for feedings and seem depressed.
  • They could have a puffy or bloated appearance. 
  • Limping or difficulty walking

Is there a Way to Prevent Sickness?

The short answer to this question, is YES, you can prevent some of these, if not all by following these tips:

Calf Sickness Prevention
  • Effective colostrum management-This is by far the most critical step! If you don’t have the proper colostrum management protocols in place, then all of your other measures of prevention are going to go to waste.
  • Vaccinations and deworming protocols, as recommended and overseen by your veterinarian.
  • Providing proper nutrition at all stages in the first weeks of life and making sure that each calf is getting enough vitamins and minerals through their feedings to sustain their rapid growth and development.
  • Ensuring that their housing is kept clean, dry, and properly ventilated for airflow. This minimizes the chance for bacteria and other germs from entering their systems.
  • Finally, avoiding stress, schedule any stressful situations at least several days apart, such as moving and vaccinations. 
Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company

Creating a Smooth Transition 

Trying to minimize the stress a new calf is under during all the transitions they face in those first few weeks of life can be quite the undertaking. However, it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than any other process on the farm. For starters, you need to keep calves healthy during the first hours and days of life. That means dipping their navel in iodine immediately after birth and then once again a few hours later after being moved to their individual pen, making sure that you keep the umbilical cord trimmed. Also, it is critical, that you give the calf either by bottle or tube feeder 4L of high-quality colostrum (22% or higher Brix reading) within the first 30 minutes of life and then again eight hours later. Then you MUST continue to give each calf adequate nutrition from milk, milk replacer, a good quality starter, and clean water. You should also be checking each calf’s serum protein levels and make sure that they have successfully received the passive immunity. At 5.5 g/dl the transfer rate is considered successful. The higher the rate the less chance of sickness.

Prior to the weaning process, you need to make sure that the calves are consuming enough starter, this is a critical step in the rumen formation which aids proper digestion and results in successful weaning. You should be consistent with all the feedings each time the calf is fed. You should maintain the time, temperature, and quality of each feeding. Mix and measure the replacer the same way every time. Make sure they are getting enough whole milk or milk replacer and water at each feeding. Water intake is important because milk solids and milk replacer need the extra fluid and helps to drive starter intake. Calves at 1 month of age should be consuming about 1 gallon of fresh, clean water per day and increasing to 2 gallons by 2 months. General guidelines for calf starter is approximately 2 pounds of starter per day. When beginning to add a starter to the calf diet, you need to start slowly. This means, small handfuls in the first few days and gradually increasing to help develop their appetite. Always, replace any leftover starter in the feed buckets at every feeding, this not only helps prevent any bacteria or germs forming, or even getting bugs in the buckets of leftover feed but also fine dust-like particles in the feed can cause digestive issues in the calves. Calves should be eating 2-3% of their body weight each day. 

transitioning calves

Decrease stress by socializing the calves. Like, most of the other things I mentioned before, you will need to start small. If you keep your calves in an individual pen during the weaning process, then you will need to move them to a small group pen first and then a large group pen. Ensure that the calf pens are designed to meet the needs of your dairy and most importantly the needs of the calves. Provide enough resting space, sleeping space, and height space for each calf to safely and comfortably move around. You also want to make sure that these areas have good air ventilation systems in place.

Finally, when you begin to transition to new feeds, add a little of the new feed to each feeding, gradually increasing over time. You don’t want to create a digestive upset by transitioning from starter to grower feeds overnight. Take a week or so to do it gradually, your calf will thank you. 

While a calf may survive a sickness, they will face a life filled with other issues from delayed growth to decreased production. The most important takeaway from this is that prevention of calf sickness during the first month of life, is the actions and protocols-especially in regards to colostrum management, you follow in the first moments of life. If you do not have a plan in place and fail to give the proper nutrition in those first two feedings of colostrum, then you will continue to see a failure to thrive and sickness on your dairy.

Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company