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Keeping Calves Healthy — Spring 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Prevention and early awareness are key

By Heather Smith Thomas

Whether you've purchased young calves to raise on bottles or own cows with calves, it's crucial to prevent illness in these young ones, because they are particularly vulnerable to disease.

Calves are born with very little immunity and must gain temporary protection via rich antibodies in their mama's first milk, or colostrum. The most important thing you can do to help prevent disease in young calves is make sure they nurse their mothers within a few hours of birth.

If you plan to purchase a day-old dairy calf, buy direct from a dairy, where you can ask if the calf received colostrum. If you buy at a sale barn, you may not be able to find out the calf's history and immune status. And because he's in close proximity with many cattle there, he's at more risk for possible diseases.

The most common ailments in baby calves are intestinal infections — such as diarrhea, called scours — and respiratory infections such as pneumonia and diphtheria. The best way to prevent infections is to keep the calf's environment clean. Pathogens that cause most infections are generally present in cattle manure — and present in highest numbers in the feces of sick animals.

Calves stay healthiest when they have lots of room in a clean pasture, rather than being confined in small pens. When cows are congregated in pens, they must lie in manure, and as a result, calves can ingest pathogens when nursing a dirty udder or licking themselves.

Respiratory illness is generally due to stress, and/or exposure to sick animals. Bacterial pathogens that cause the most problems are already present in the calf's environment and some of them live in the upper respiratory tract.

They cause trouble only when the airway lining is disrupted by injury or irritation — such as from dust or damage from viral diseases passed from one animal to another — or if stress hinders the immune system.

Calves are very vulnerable to pneumonia, for instance, if they are severely stressed by bad weather. They need shelter from storms so they don't get wet and chilled. Cows with young calves need windbreaks or a run-in shed to get out of bad weather.

If you have several cows with calves, often the best situation is a "calf house" where the calves can get in out of the weather but the cows can't get in. This is cleaner and safer for the calves than a shed that might be crowded with cows and calves.

Prevention is the best way to deal with disease, and early detection and treatment is the next defense. If a calf gets sick, treatment may become an uphill battle if you wait too long to help him.

Be aware of early warning signs, such as the calf not wanting to nurse, or looking dull and droopy rather than lively and alert. Diarrhea, fever, coughing, or snotty nose are signs of illness that need immediate attention.

Don't hesitate to get help from your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment; this can often make the difference between life and death for the calf.

Heather Smith Thomas, who raises cattle in Idaho, has authored several books on livestock, including the latest, The Cattle Health Handbook.