'Calling in the vet is just half the battle when treating sick calves'


Eamon O'Connell
Eamon O'Connell
Eamonn Connell

Eamon O’Connell

The unfortunate reality on a lot of farms is, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, a calf will get sick.

The vet is called and treatment is administered. The vet washes up, has a quick chat and disappears out the gate to the next call.

Now what?

The temptation is to go back to work and try to get on top of the endless list of jobs. But the calf is still sick and needs a lot of special care and attention from the farmer to make a full recovery.

A clean, dry and warm isolation pen is required. A very cost effective and fantastic idea I have seen lately is the use of a plastic IBC tank. One side was cut to make a door and the opening at the top was used to affix an infra red lamp.

It was bedded with clean, dry straw. It warms up the calf very quickly and can be easily and effectively disinfected when the calf has made a full recovery.

'Despite best efforts of everyone, a calf will get sick'
'Despite best efforts of everyone, a calf will get sick'


In cases of pneumonia or scour, small frequent feeds are best. We have already mentioned keeping a calf with scour on milk feeds for the best chance of a full recovery. In the case of a calf with pneumonia, they may not have the energy to stay sucking for a prolonged period so small, frequent feeds help.

Regular monitoring is needed. Calves with scour should be checked for signs of dehydration.

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Pinch the skin on the calf's neck between your thumb and forefinger. If the skin stays tented, then the calf is dehydrated. The calf's eye is another good guide. If you can see any space between the calf's eyeball and socket, then the calf is dehydrated. The vet may need to be called then as often, only intravenous fluids will correct severe dehydration. Calves with pneumonia should be observed to see if their breathing becomes more laboured.

A relapse of scour or pneumonia can occur up to two weeks after the first incidence, so stay vigilant.

Read also: Spring into action on calf health - Calving essentials checklist

Calving essentials checklist

  • A fully functioning and serviced calving jack. There's  no point in realising it isn't working when you try to pull a calf.
  • Two new sets of calving ropes. Throw away last year's ropes.
  • Arm length gloves and a bottle of lubrication.
  • A bottle of navel disinfection: Clorhexidine and alcohol combo is the best.
  • A fully functioning calving gate in a shed that can be accessed by tractor or loader. Calving gates are often absent on many farms. If a cow needs assistance calving, a head gate is vital. Also, if a cow stays down after calving, if she can be moved to a deep-bedded shed or paddock, her chances of recovery are much greater. This is why easy access by a loader/tractor is important.
  • Two stomach tubes: one for colostrum and one for sick calves.
  • A brix refractometer to measure colostrum quality. If you have never used one before, you will be amazed at the cows that have poor quality colostrum. Colostrum with a brix value of less than 22pc is poor quality and should be discarded.
  • Colostrum bags. Good quality colostrum should be stored and frozen in flat colostrum bags. This allows the colostrum to thaw quicker when needed. Never thaw colostrum in a microwave as it damages quality. Thaw in a large bucket or vat of warm water.
  • Clean, disinfected buckets, especially and solely for colostrum.
  • A suitable disinfectant to disinfect calving boxes and calf pens.
  • An easy to use method of record keeping - be it your phone or a big white board in the dairy, keep as many records as possible. Difficult calvings, poor colostrum quality, incidences of milk fever and retained placentas are all things that will be forgotten about unless recorded and will form the basis for decision making at breeding time and later, at culling. Similarly, records of treatments of individual sick calves are useful when deciding if a calf will be kept for future breeding.
  • An ample supply of coffee and chocolate for the people that will keep the show on the road this spring!

Eamon O'Connell is a vet with the Summerhill Veterinary Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary

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