Vet's Perspective

May 18, 2012
by WLJ

Management and welfare of the young calf

Whether you are following a specific calving season or have calves born yearround, keeping track of herd records is an important management tool. As we see more calves in the upcoming spring months, a few specific points are worthy of consideration on your farm: individual calf identification, dam identification, birth date, gender, and body weight of calf (as well as the body condition score of the dam!). It is also recommended to keep track of the age of the dam and the identification of the sire. In addition, familiarizing yourself with more commonly recognized signs and symptoms of disease may allow for earlier and more effective treatment planning.

When a calf is born, a record should be made that it has received colostrum (a volume of at least 10 percent of the calf’s body weight) either directly from the dam or from forced esophageal feeding. This is the most important measure to ensure high antibodies are present in the calf’s bloodstream—which allows it to have the most optimal immune function! Absorption of colostrum may be decreased in calves that are born in extremely cold or warm environments, or that have been born with difficulty (dystocia). It should be assured that these animals have received adequate colostrum from the dam in a timely manner. Fresh water should always be provided! Similarly, calf illnesses should be noted and treated —medications that are given can be recorded and accessed for further evaluation as necessary to make changes in your protocol.

Housing from harsh environmental elements should be provided. Hypothermia is a leading cause for young calf mortality and can be easily prevented with shelter and windbreaks, as well as warming blankets if indicated.

Risk of disease can also be decreased by reducing the stress level of the calf as much as possible. Besides ambient temperatures, stress can be heightened with changes in feed, such as the transition from milk to concentrates and forage, as well as discrepancies in daily feeding patterns and intervals. Find a time schedule that works best for you and your management team and make an attempt to stay on task! Avoid crowding and competition within groups, and arrange vaccinations and routine work to be conducted in a single episode, if possible.

Early identification of illness can be assessed by observing for the following signs: increased rectal temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, decreased milk or feed intake, watery or bloody diarrhea, coughing and nasal discharge, weakness, and joint swelling or lameness. Any of these signs should be further evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Microorganisms that are responsible for disease are often ubiquitous in the environment. Animals exposed to such as infectious agents may demonstrate septicemia, diarrhea and pneumonia.

Septicemia means that disease-causing organisms, and possibly the toxins they produce, are circulating throughout the body’s blood and lymph systems. This condition usually results from a bacterial infection that occurs in the uterus peripartum. The severity of this condition cannot be understated, due to the potential effects of bacterial translocation and damage to other organs. Calves may demonstrate depression, weakness, meningitis, swollen and tender navel, and joint inflammation.

Diarrhea due to bacteria, viruses, and parasites is another important disease problem affecting young calves. A fecal and intestinal examination may allow veterinarians to further distinguish the causative agents during illness. Although several agents can be responsible for diarrhea, the signs of disease are typically very similar. Symptoms may include the following: weakness, severe watery diarrhea with mucus or blood sometimes present, and dehydration. Both dehydration and hypoglycemia should be addressed with adequate fluid and nutritional therapy. It is imperative to note that many of these infectious agents are zoonotic—very easily transmitted to humans and other animals, if proper handwashing and sanitation measures are not in place when working with sick calves!

Pneumonia can, unfortunately, also result from similar factors causing diarrhea and septicemia. Respiratory problems are often first noted at weaning when animals are being moved and separated into new groups. All of these conditions can be treated symptomatically with fluids, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and probiotics.

The risk factor for calf illness is increased when susceptible young animals are exposed to older and ill animals, cold or humid and under-bedded environments, and shelters that lack adequate ventilation. A team of researchers, veterinarians and ranchers in Nebraska have developed a system to aid management of different ages of cattle. The ‘Sandhills Calving System’ has the purpose to recreate ideal birthing conditions by calving in separate pastures at regular intervals. This allows calves to be born in an environment with reduced fecal contamination and pathogens. The system seems to work with a three pasture rotation, animals can be moved every two weeks.

Measurement of calf weights can give information on the average daily gain of animals. An initial birth weight is often compared to the seven month or 210-day-old weight. A body condition score can be done at this time to analyze the animals’ musculature and body fat cover. Target growth rates are: at 60 days, a weight double that of the birth weight; and then approximately 2 pounds per day of average weight gain. Many producers shoot for a calf weaning weight that is 45-50 percent that of the dam’s weight.

Keeping accurate records in an organized fashion has the distinct advantage, you know where you are in the production scheme. Maintaining up-to-date records allows producers to evaluate their systems’ pros and cons. The most important aspects of treatment are early recognition of illness and aggressive nutritional and fluid therapy. I like to remember the five Cs of managing calves: Colostrum, Cleanliness, Comfort, Calories and Consistency. By using these management tips, one can be less influenced by seasonal fads and personal opinions regarding management protocols. You cannot control what you do not know.— Dr. Genevieve Grammer

[Dr. Genevieve Grammer is a veterinarian working out of the Pikes Peak region. Please address correspondence to drgigil9@]