Managing Sick Dairy Calves
Updated: Mar 29
The health of dairy calves in the first eight weeks of life directly impacts future milk production and longevity within the herd. Winter brings with it a higher incidence of scours and pneumonia which are the two most common illnesses amongst pre-weaned dairy calves. The highest risk of scours occurs in the first month of life, while respiratory diseases often occur closer to weaning time or during stressful events. The key to the control of these diseases is prevention, early detection, and early intervention.
Good practices in colostrum management, biosecurity and housing can prevent most disease in pre-weaned calves. Calves should be fed an adequate amount of high quality colostrum within six hours of birth — four quarts for Holsteins, three quarts for Jerseys. Calf
buckets, bottles and esophageal feeders should be rinsed, washed, acid rinsed and air dried after each use. Calf hutches should be moved, washed and sanitized between calves. Calf housing should provide shade, dry bedding and draft-free ventilation.
Early detection and intervention is essential for treatment success. Special attention should be given to calves’ behavior around feeding time. The calf should stand eagerly at the feeding station and promptly consume the entire bottle. Manure should be monitored
for consistency as scours can quickly lead to dehydration in young calves. Calves should also be monitored for nasal discharge, cough, rapid breathing, drooping ears and sunken eyes. If a calf is suspected of illness, it should be thoroughly examined (including taking a
temperature) and the appropriate protocol initiated for the specific illness. To avoid transmitting diseases to healthy calves, sick calves should be fed last. Wash hands, boots and equipment after feeding or handling sick calves.
Supportive care is crucial for sick calves. Calves become critically ill quickly without three basic necessities: Food, Fluid and Furnace. That is to say, they need calories from milk, fluids from water and/or electrolytes and warmth. The following are a few steps to adhere to
when initiating care of a sick calf.
Isolate: Sick calves should be isolated with new, dry bedding in a
Warm: Monitoring body temperature daily in sick calves helps determine treatment efficacy. Calves with temperature under 100°F can be warmed by heat lamp, administering warm fluids, a calf warmer, or even a hair dryer.
Water: Ensure fresh water is available at all times.
Milk/Milk replacer: Calves cannot recover from illness without the calories and nutrients provided by milk. Give a smaller volume more frequently at normal concentration and temperature if they are unable to finish a full feeding. Tube feed if needed.
Electrolytes: Oral electrolytes can be administered to dehydrated calves, but should be separated from a milk feeding by at least two hours. Electrolytes are fed in addition to milk, not in place of milk.
Anti-inflammatories and antibiotics: Discuss with your veterinarian whether medication is needed in addition to supportive care for your calf’s condition.
Probiotics: Improve intestinal microbiome especially after sickness and antibiotic therapy by oral probiotic administration.