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    How to Care for Sick Calves

    Calves are baby cows or bulls that need special care and nutrition to ensure they grow up to be productive members of a cattle herd. Many calves need to be hand-raised depending on the circumstances and the health conditions that exist on the farm already.

    The prevention of disease and the spread of disease within a herd is the reason why so many cattle farmers and livestock farmers raising any type of barn yard animal put into place a biosecurity plan.

    What is a Biosecurity Plan?

    Even if you are not a commercial livestock farmer, having a biosecurity plan is important for the health of your herd and the health of other livestock living around your farm. Work with your local ag extension agency to develop a plan that is scaled to the size of your farm or livestock operation to protect animals from the spread of contagious disease among livestock.

    Common Calf Health Issues

    Many calves are able to grow up without much intervention from their human owners, however knowing how to care for a sick baby calf is vital to not only protecting the individual calf but is also important to protecting the entire herd. Here are two of the most common health issues that arise in calves: Scours and Respiratory Disease.


    Scours is one of the most common health problems among calves less than one month old. Scours can be caused by an infection or by improper nutrition and causes severe dehydration and death. Early identification of scours is important to successful treatment of scours.

    Nutritional Scours

    Nutritional scours can be caused by any one or combination of the following:

    • Inconsistent feeding habits such as changes in feeding time of day or the amount of food that is being provided to the calf.
    • Changing the type of milk replacer the calf is being fed.
    • Poor-quality milk replacer which may not be as digestible for calves, causing nutritional deficiencies.
    • Over-consumption by the calf of milk replacer or electrolytes.

    Before turning to antibiotics to treat calf scours, look at the calf's possible nutritional deficiencies and other nutritional factors that could be causing the scours. Using antibiotics can kill harmful bacteria, but antibiotics also kills some beneficial bacteria in calves, so the use of antibiotics should be limited to those times when you have eliminated all other possible causes. Contact a veterinarian to get more information about how to treat your calves if scours develops.

    Nutritional scours is easily prevented by maintaining a consistent and well-balanced feeding plan for your calves. Here are some tips for preventing nutritional scours in your calves:

    • Maintain a consistent feeding schedule. Feed calves at the same times every day.
    • Do not make sudden changes in the quality or quantity of food you feed calves. If increasing feeding quantity, do so by gradually increasing the quantity over several days. Similarly, if you want to change the type of milk replacer you are feeding your calves, start by mixing in a little bit of the new formula with the formula your calf is used to, then gradually increase the ratio of new-to-old milk replacer type over a few days until the calf's body has adapted to the new formula. If you aren't sure about how to do this, consult with your veterinarian to determine the best way to make the transition.

    Infectious Scours

    Infectious scours is caused by bacteria, viruses and protozoa that are common to a livestock farm environment. Many adult cattle carry these pathogens; however the immune system of an adult animal is strong enough to prevent illness. Calves, on the other hand, do not have a well-established immune system and are susceptible to becoming very ill when exposed to these organisms. Follow these tips to help prevent infectious scours in your calves:

    • Do not skip or skimp on the colostrum. When a calf is born, make sure you have properly fed a high-quality colostrum that is full of antibodies the calf's immune system needs to fight infection throughout its life.
    • Keep the calf's environment clean. Pathogen loads, or the amount of pathogens present in a given area, can build up over time on a farm. Pathogens love to live in wet and dirty animal bedding and on unclean pen floors and walls. Pathogens can be carried on the hands, shoes or clothing from one area to another. Develop a good understanding of why you should have a biosecurity plan in place on your livestock farm.
    • Prevent exposure to other animals that may be carriers. Part of your biosecurity plan should include separate housing for calves and a cleaning / rotation regimen.

    How to Treat Scours in Calves

    Calves with scours should be monitored daily. Since dehydration is the primary cause of death among calves with scours, the first step in treating scours is to reverse the loss of fluids and electrolytes. Continue feeding milk replacer twice daily in addition to an electrolyte formula between feedings. Wait 2-3 hours after feeding milk replacer until feeding electrolytes. Do not mix electrolytes in with milk replacers. If the scours persists after a few days, contact your veterinarian.

    Scour Scoring

    A scour score is ranked on a scale of 1 to 4 and helps livestock owners monitor the calf's fecal consistency. Scour score rankings are as follows:

    • Scour score of 1 is normal and fairly solid.
    • Scour score of 2 is also normal, but soft.
    • Scour score of 3 is abnormal, runny and not formed.
    • Scour score of 4 is abnormal, liquid or watery.

    If a calf has a scour score of 4, you should feed the calf an electrolyte solution immediately to reverse the loss of fluids and restore electrolyte balance. Then contact your veterinarian to get a proper analysis of what type of scours it is: nutritional or infectious. The type of scours will determine whether feeding habits need to be changed or whether antibiotics should be given.

    Respiratory Disease in Calves

    Respiratory disease in cattle and calves is very common. Bacterial or viral pneumonia is accompanied by many of the symptoms we associate with human pneumonia: coughing, runny nose and labored breathing / wheezing. Respiratory disease in calves can be prevented by the following:

    • Proper vaccinations
    • Clean and well-ventilated barns, pens or housing>
    • Good nutrition in calves

    Early detection and treatment of illness in calves is the most effective way to eliminate both scours and respiratory disease. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if you think your calf or calves have developed either condition.