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7 signs calves are headed down a bad health path

Ann Hoskins for Progressive Dairyman Published on 01 March 2018
calf in straw

Many calves show subtle signs of sickness before it becomes clinical. The “look, listen, smell and feel” strategy will help you identify those calves much earlier and can be used in all calf-raising systems. The key is to closely observe calves in the moment without making assumptions or overlooking small signs.

1. Do you smell ammonia or fresh scours? When you first greet your calves, notice if the area smells right. Is the air fresh? Does something smell foul or off? An ammonia odor can indicate poor bedding, while scours, of course, indicates gastrointestinal challenges.



If you smell scours, find the pen with the issue. Even if it’s not easy to spot, keep looking until you find the scouring calf. Don’t wait until you see a wet tail or other obvious signs. Addressing scours early with proper hydration decreases the long-term effects of scours, which include lower gains and higher risk of respiratory disease.

2. Do the calves get up when they see you coming? No matter the time of day, normal calves will either get up or acknowledge your presence. Any calf that does not react warrants a couple seconds of your time for evaluation. In some cases, she may just be in a heavy sleep. At other times, it means she is not feeling well and should be identified and closely watched.

3. Are they “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed”? Calves starting to head in the wrong direction will look dull. Her eyes will tell you how she’s doing. While hard to explain in words, experienced calf raisers notice a difference in the eyes when something is wrong. If a calf is already dehydrated, you will see the eyes sink and become increasingly dull. Identify these calves and keep them under close observation, as they will likely need additional support.

4. How are the hair coats? This can also tell you a lot. A healthy hair coat is shiny and lies flat.  Something is wrong if the hair coat changes, and subtle change over time can tell you a story.  Look at a calf’s neighbors and decide if she’s the only one who looks rough or if the whole group looks the same. In either case, something is not right and calves should be further evaluated.

5. Are they anxious to eat? At feeding time, all calves should be front and center to eat. The first sign of concern is a calf that doesn’t get up to eat. The second sign is an altered drinking speed. Watch for a calf that breaks pattern or is not aggressive when eating. If she slows or doesn’t finish her milk, she should be marked for evaluation and continued observation.


6. Are they resting comfortably? After feeding, walk the calves again to observe their resting behaviors. Looks for signs of chill (bodies curled up tight and hair extra-fluffed and rough looking). These calves may be cold, may need bedding or are not feeling well and need to be evaluated. Does a calf lie with her head curled or distended? A calf lying with her neck stretched is often an early sign of respiratory disease.

7. Do you hear rough breathing? Listen to the animals. Is someone breathing hard or raspy? Is someone coughing? Listen for things that don’t belong, and don’t wait to find the calf with the issue.

It’s easy to miss these simple signs when you rush through a busy shift of calf chores. When you work with calves, make a conscious effort to be “in the moment” and notice the little things. Early identification and observation of calves heading down the wrong path is key to reducing incidence and duration of sickness in calves. This allows you to be proactive in disease management to keep the calf growing and allow for a productive future.  end mark

This article has been translated in Spanish. Click here to view the article.

Ann Hoskins
  • Ann Hoskins

  • Calf Products Coordinator
  • Vita Plus Corp.
  • Email Ann Hoskins

PHOTO: Observation is an essential component of proactive disease management. Take time each day to watch for calves showing signs of sickness. Photo by Mike Dixon.