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Indoor calf pen walk-throughs: What you need to look for

Anne Proctor for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 January 2016
Indoor calf pens

Editor’s note: This article is part one in a two-part series on what to look for during a calf pen walk-through. Part two: Calf hutch walk-throughs: What you need to look for.

Many times when I’m walking calves on a farm, an employee will ask, “So, what are you looking at anyway?”



I’m looking for sick calves using a simple method to quickly assess the health status of each calf.

Start small

Always start with the youngest calves and work your way to the oldest calves to prevent spread of disease from older calves to the newborns. Slowly walk past each pen and quickly assess the items below. When the calves are in group pens, go through the same basic approach. Take the time to look at each calf. If anything catches your eye, stop and watch the calf to get a more thorough evaluation.

Make a note of the calf’s number and share any concerns with the owner or manager. While most of the calves noted are already being treated on the best-managed herds, occasionally you will come up with one that was doing well at last check and looks “off” when you walk through. On some herds, the managers or employees struggle to identify sick calves, and it’s a great opportunity to talk about early symptoms.

Attitude is everything

The first glance tells a lot about the calf. A healthy calf interacts with her environment. She should show interest in you when you approach. She should look at you and follow your movement with her eyes as you walk by. A sick calf will be slow to notice you, probably not show interest in your movement and generally look depressed.

In a group pen, healthy calves will be with the herd and show interest in each other and you being in their environment. Look for calves that are away from the group, often in the corners or along a wall or fence. Walk up to her. A healthy calf will usually watch your approach and get up when you get into her flight zone. A calf that does not get up when you approach needs a more thorough evaluation.



A healthy calf’s eyes will be bright and shiny. There should be no tears running down the face or thick discharge in the corners of her eyes.


Ears should be carried straight out from the head and move in response to noise in the environment. There should be no crusty discharge. Droopy ears are an indication that the calf is not feeling well.

Be aware that the bigger eartags are heavy and will pull the ears down on a healthy, normal calf, so be careful about using droopy ears as the only concern. A sick calf will usually show other symptoms, too.


There should be no snotty discharge from the nose. A wet nose is fine; it’s the discharge that we’re concerned about.

Navels (bellybuttons)

When the calf is born, the navel is an expressway for bacteria to get into the calf. Dipping navels immediately after birth helps prevent bacteria from entering. Look at the navel as you walk calves. If producers are using iodine as a navel dip, it should be obvious for the first day or two that the calves have been dipped because of the yellow staining around the umbilical stump.

If you see newborn calves and don’t see the staining, re-evaluate your dipping protocol. Swelling in the navel can be caused by either a navel infection or an umbilical hernia, with an infection being far more common.



Swollen joints are often a direct result of a navel infection and show up weeks later. Knees are the most common place that you will notice swelling, although it can occur in other joints as well. Once the infection settles in the joints, it is very difficult to treat successfully. It is recommended to contact a veterinarian for a proper treatment protocol to help prevent the problem in the future.

The source of the problem is often in the calving area. Work to improve cleanliness in the calving area and improve the navel-dipping protocol. Iodine for navel dipping should be the 7 percent iodine tincture, and it should be applied by dipping the navel into a cup, not by spraying.

The dip must cover the umbilical cord and the navel where the cord attaches to the body.

Disposable paper cups work great for dipping navels. Put about an inch of fresh iodine in the bottom, place the top of the cup over the navel and shake vigorously to thoroughly cover the umbilical cord and navel. Throw away the used cup and any remaining iodine rather than trying to reuse it.

Even iodine can lose its disinfecting ability if it has been used over and over.

Breathe easy

Watch the calf breathe for a moment. The respiratory rate should be similar to those around her (assuming they are healthy). As you would expect, respiratory rate will increase in hot weather, so it is important to determine if breathing fast is because of the weather or a respiratory infection.

Note any calf breathing faster or slower than the calves around her. Look for calves that are making a raspy or wheezing noise or taking shallow breaths. These indicate a respiratory infection.

Open-mouth breathing (panting) and drooling (when not sucking on a bottle) are abnormal. Check the calf’s temperature and treat according to protocols on the farm.

Manure happens

Look for fresh manure and evaluate the consistency. Sometimes it is hard to find fresh manure if a calf is scouring because it has soaked into the bedding. Look at the walls of the hutch for evidence of manure running down the walls. Smears are OK; streaks down to the bedding are not.

While watery manure is a sure sign the calf is sick, hard manure often indicates the calf is not consuming enough water. Make sure water is available and that it is clean and accessible. Sometimes it’s as simple as buckets or waterers being too high for the calf to comfortably drink from.


The tail should be dry. A wet tail is a sure sign of scours, even if you don’t see fresh manure. In group pens, it can be difficult to know which calf produced the problem manure. A scouring calf will often show other symptoms that she is not feeling well. Sometimes walking through the pen will get calves moving enough to make manure and find the one that needs attention.

Hair coat

Hair coats should be an appropriate length for the season and have proper color and a shine to them. Calves that have been sick often stand out because they have shaggy hair coats. The hair may appear dull or be off-color (brownish tinge rather than black).

While a rough hair coat is not necessarily a sign that a calf is sick, seeing a lot of them as you walk calves is a reason to ask more questions about calf health in past months.

A few simple phrases will help you remember what to look for when walking calves. They are: Start small, attitude is everything, eyes, ears, nose, bellybutton, breathe easy and manure happens. Walking calves can be fun when you know what to look for.  PD

PHOTO: Calves in an indoor pen. Photo by Mike Dixon

Anne Proctor
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