Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

1109 PD: Keeping calves healthy

Published on 20 July 2009

The health of replacement animals is an important component of total herd profitability.

The productivity of the herd can be negatively impacted by impaired growth of calves, decreased milk production of animals that experienced chronic illness as baby calves, increased veterinary costs and the limited opportunity for genetic selection due to high mortality of replacement animals. Among all animals present on a dairy farm, the highest morbidity and mortality rates generally occur in baby calves prior to weaning.

According to Dr. Sheila McGuirk of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, simple exposure to infectious agents is not sufficient cause for the development of diseases in calves. In calves, the difference between health and disease is very often just a slight tip of a delicate balance that weighs calf and environmental factors with the bacterial, viral or parasitic agents to which the calf will be exposed.



Three prominent disease problems in the young calf are septicemia, diarrhea and pneumonia. Septicemia is usually the result of a bacterial infection that occurs while the calf is in the uterus, during or immediately after birth. The route of infection can be the blood of a sick dam, an infected placenta, the calf’s umbilical stump, mouth, nose or wound. Septicemia is the most severe medical problem that a calf can develop because the blood-borne infection disseminates and damages many different organs.

Diarrhea is the most common cause of death in young calves and is almost entirely avoidable by good management. The highest risk period for diarrhea is from birth until about one month of age. Bacteria, viruses or parasites cause diarrhea in calves.

Diarrhea can be managed by increasing resistance through good colostrum management, reducing pathogen exposure, reducing the impact of parasitic infections by feeding a coccidiostat, matching fluid intake with fluid loss and providing electrolytes.

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs. Clinical signs of pneumonia include nasal discharge, dry cough, body temperature between 39.5º C (103.1ºF) and 41ºC (105.8ºF), respiratory distress and decreased appetite. Pneumonia can be managed by increasing resistance through good colostrum management, reducing pathogen exposure and monitoring animals for early diagnosis and treatment.

According to McGuirk, the five C’s provide an effective formula for managing the young dairy calf:


• Colostrum

• Cleanliness

• Comfort

• Calories

• Consistency

While the agents that cause disease are always there and can be extremely important in a disease outbreak, a comfortable, clean calf with good colostrum management, consistent feeding and management practices and plenty of calories in the diet can be disease-free even if they become infected. PD


—Excerpts from Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Heard in the Hutch newsletter, November 2008