Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Calf health: Reduce death rates via better calf care

Eoin Ryan

The main causes of calf mortality include:

  • Calf diarrhoea -- accounts for 75pc of neo-natal calf deaths;
  • Calf pneumonia -- responsible for 20pc of neo-natal calf mortality;
  • Septicaemia -- accounts for 4-5pc of neo-natal calf mortality and presents itself in many forms, including:

l Joint ill

l Navel ill/peritonitis

l Meningitis.

Calf diarrhoea

Responsible for 75pc of calf mortality, this is a serious disease but calf diarrhoea pathogens can be prevented. Often calf diarrhoea is caused by mixed infections. The common causes of it include:

  • E-coli K99: Affects calves from birth up to five days;
  • Cryptosporidia: Affects calves from five days onwards;
  • Rotavirus: Affects calves from 5-7 days onwards;
  • Coronavirus: Affects calves from seven days and beyond;
  • Coccidiosis: Normally affects calves from three weeks of age onwards, but when the environment is severely contaminated with coccidial oocysts, it can be seen in calves as young as seven days;
  • Salmonella: Normally affects calves from 10-14 days and beyond;
  • Campylobacter jejuni is occasionally a cause of calf diarrhoea when environmental contamination with this pathogen is high.

Prevention of calf diarrhoea

  • Adherence to the principles mentioned left, in terms of maximising immunity and minimising challenge.
  • E-coli, rotavirus and coronavirus can all be prevented by vaccination of the dry cows 3-6 weeks before calving. Vaccination at this time will stimulate the cow's immune system to produce antibodies against these pathogens, and these antibodies will then be present in high quantities in the colostrum. Of course, all the benefits of this type of vaccination programme will be lost if the calf does not subsequently receive adequate colostrum intake after birth.
  • If Cryptosporidia has been diagnosed on your farm, it can be prevented in subsequent calves by prophylactically treating calves with Halocur orally (8ml/head/day) from birth to seven days of age.
  • If Salmonella has been diagnosed as the prime cause of calf diarrhoea on the farm, disease can be reduced by vaccinating the cows before calving. However, since salmonella is a common cause of abortion in cows between six and eight months of gestation, it is recommended that cows are vaccinated in late September to early October.
  • Coccidiosis is a very common cause of bloody diarrhoea and can be prevented by prophylactically drenching calves with either Vecoxan or Baycox Bovis prior to the time of greatest risk of disease, ie drench at two weeks of age.

Respiratory disease

Also Read

Calf pneumonia is responsible for 20pc of all calf deaths. The main causes of calf pneumonia are the viruses IBR, RSV and PI3 and the bacterias mannheimia haemolytica, pasteurella multocida, mycoplasma bovis and haemophilus somnus. Pneumonia is a multifactorial disease, ie there are many stressors which weaken calf resistance, allowing the viruses and bacteria to attack, overcome the calf's immune system and lead to clinical pneumonia and possibly death. Stressors include:

(i) Failure to ensure adequate colostrum intake or poor quality of colostrum;

(ii) Poor ventilation in calf housing;

(iii) Draughts at calf level leading to chilling of the calf; (iv) Overcrowding leading to ease of transfer of disease;

(v) Inadequate milk intake leading to malnutrition and weakness;

(vi) Concurrent disease, eg navel ill or joint ill;

(vii) Shared airspace with older animals particularly the cows, which act as carriers and shedders of the virus.

It is very important to ensure that as many as possible of these risk factors and stressors are removed to reduce the occurrence of calf pneumonia.


There are several vaccines available against respiratory disease:

  • IBR virus can be prevented by the intra-nasal vaccination of calves as young as 10 days old (and sometimes younger). These intra-nasal vaccinations have the added advantage of stimulating local immunity in the respiratory tract in the face of an outbreak of disease. However, they are relatively short-acting (12 weeks) and may need to be followed by longer- acting intramuscular vaccination.
  • Both RSV and PI3 viruses can be prevented by similar vaccination protocols, ie intra-nasal route followed by intramuscular vaccination.
  • The other important pathogen that can be prevented by vaccination is the mannhaemia haemolytica bacteria.

It is very important to remember that no vaccine gives 100pc protection and, in the case of respiratory disease, if housing, ventilation and stocking rates are poor, then vaccine efficiency will be dramatically reduced.

Irish Independent