Overcoming Calf Health Issues

An unhealthy calf can be a strain on both beef and dairy farming, but many calf health issues can be overcome if they are recognized early and properly treated. By staying alert to your animals and providing them with exceptional care, you can easily raise healthy, productive calves.

Diseases and Health Issues Affecting Calves

There are many different diseases and health problems that can appear in calves. Depending on the climate, environmental cleanliness, herd size, available nutrition, and other factors, calves might be affected with…

  • Bovine respiratory disease, pneumonia, and other lung disorders
  • Septicemia
  • Scours, digestive difficulties, and diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Parasites, both internal and external

Many of these conditions present with similar symptoms, and they can often be treated with broad treatment programs that will alleviate multiple conditions. When a calf is infected with one health issue, however, it can become more vulnerable to other illnesses and its condition can become more complicated and challenging to treat.

Problems With an Unhealthy Calf

Calves with health problems can present a variety of symptoms, from dry nose, lethargy, and diarrhea to loss of condition and stunted growth. If the problems aren’t corrected, the calf will not grow and gain weight with its peers and may be slower to mature overall, missing critical milestones for expected development. Health problems can hold up weaning or make vaccinations less effective, and calves for sale may not bring as profitable a price as healthier, well-conditioned animals. Unhealthy calves may also spread parasites, bacteria, or viruses throughout the herd, causing additional health difficulties with other animals. Overall, calves with health issues require more attention and resources, and can be costlier to raise to productive maturity.

Preventing Calf Health Problems

There are many steps that can be taken to prevent or overcome calf health issues, starting long before the calf is born.

  • Maintain a Healthy Pregnancy – Provide pregnant cows with superior nutrition and proper shelter to protect the calves they’re carrying. A healthier, well-conditioned cow will also be able to produce more colostrum with the antibodies critical for newborn calves.
  • Provide a Clean and Comfortable Birthing Area – Minimizing pathogen exposure in newborn calves is essential to lower the risk of health problems. Birthing bedding should be clean and dry, and the birthing shelter should be draft-free to keep calves warm.
  • Feed Adequate Colostrum – Calves need healthy, rich colostrum in their first few hours after birth, when their bodies will absorb the antibodies most efficiently to provide initial protections. Use supplemental colostrum if necessary.
  • Administer Calf Vaccines Properly – Keep calves on a proper vaccination schedule with appropriate vaccine combinations for their needs. The exact vaccines that are suitable will vary based on the animal type, environmental risks, type of vaccine, and other factors.
  • Provide Proper Nutrition – Calf starter formulas and other nutritional programs of more intensive feeding can help give calves the nutrition they need for healthy growth and proper development. Take steps to be sure all calves are feeding properly.
  • Keep Calf Housing Clean – Young calves are especially vulnerable to environmental parasites and poor living conditions. Calf housing should be draft-free but with good air circulation and low humidity to minimize respiratory problems, and bedding should be clean and dry.
  • Clean All Equipment – Anything that comes into contact with calves or their environment – feeding buckets, water troughs, milk bottles, boots, even your hands – should be thoroughly washed and sterilized to prevent the transmission of diseases and pathogens.
  • Practice Feces Management – A great number of parasites, viruses, and bacteria are found in feces, and superior feces management will help minimize the health issues your calves face. Remove feces regularly, and keep old manure far from calves and other animals.
  • Lower Stresses on Calves – A stressed calf has lower immune resistance and is more vulnerable to infection. Take steps to minimize the stresses from travel, dehorning, castration, ear tagging, handling, weaning, loud noises, and other stressors to keep calves relaxed, calm, and healthy.
  • Quarantine Newly Purchased Calves – If you have purchased new calves to augment your stock, quarantine the unknown animals for 7-10 days before introducing them to the rest of your calves. This will minimize the risk of transmitting any new diseases to your existing herd.
  • Stay Alert to Overall Health – Examine your calves regularly, and become familiar with their normal behaviors and conditions. The more familiar you are with the animals, the more easily you can spot any problems and quickly take steps to keep health issues from getting worse.

Because young calves are especially vulnerable to a range of health issues, it can be challenging to keep them safe and healthy. The more steps you take to protect and nurture your calves in a safe, healthy environment, however, the fewer health issues they will face and the easier it will be to overcome any problems that do develop.

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