Spring into action on calf health - Calving essentials checklist

Early intervention is essential to minimise the impact of disease outbreaks in calves, writes vet Eamon O'Connell

Immediate dressing of the calf's navel after birth with a clorhexidine and alcohol solution is best practice in preventing Nave Ill. Removing the calf immediately after birth to a dry straw bed is also recommended
Immediate dressing of the calf's navel after birth with a clorhexidine and alcohol solution is best practice in preventing Nave Ill. Removing the calf immediately after birth to a dry straw bed is also recommended

Eamon O'Connell

So it begins again. The calving season has sneaked up on us and, for a large number of herds around the country, calving will begin in a few days time.

It's an exciting time: lots of young calves, milk starting to flow again, grass starting to grow and the future of the herd being born every day.

It can, however, be a daunting time as well. A shortage of skilled labour means the workload is bigger than ever.

In the months of February and March, for a lot of dairy farmers it can seem like there aren't enough hours in the day. During this busy time, we need to stay sharp and be focused, especially on the young animals in the herd.

A disease outbreak during springtime is not only economically disastrous, but it also requires a lot of time and effort to rectify.

Sleepless nights and long days mean we need to avoid any more unneeded hardship if at all possible.

So, what are the most common diseases that affect young calves in the spring, how do we spot them, how do we treat them and, most importantly, what can we do now to avoid seeing them at all?

Pneumonia This is the most common cause of death in young calves. Pneumonia in a calf is usually very obvious.

Get the latest news from the Farming Independent team 3 times a week.

The calf is dull, reluctant to drink and will be breathing heavily. On examination, they will have a high temperature and often, a clear discharge from both nostrils. This calf should be isolated to a clean, warm and dry sick pen immediately. Antibiotics and, equally, if not more importantly, anti-inflammatories are needed for a quick recovery. The sooner a calf with pneumonia is identified and treated, the better the chances of recovery. If in any doubt, it is well worth ringing your vet for advice.

Once the calf has been treated, this should not be the end of the story. The cause of the pneumonia needs to be identified in order to prevent more calves getting sick.

Your vet can take nasal swabs and blood samples to identify the causative bacteria or virus and advise on a vaccination strategy based on the results. IBR, PI3, RSV are some of the most common viruses, all of which can be prevented through properly timed vaccination.

The shed needs to be examined too: is there enough straw bedding in the shed to allow calves to burrow down to keep warm? Is the bed dry? What is air movement like at calf level and in the shed in general?

These are all questions that need to be answered to get to the root of the problem. Every shed is different so seek expert advice before making any changes.


You don't need any qualification or experience to diagnose scour in a calf.

The signs are very obvious: profuse diarrhoea and lack of appetite are the most common. In severe cases, the calf will collapse and become comatose.

Isolate the calf immediately. Heat and hydration are of paramount importance. A calf with bad scour looses huge quantities of fluid and dehydration sets in quickly.

Your vet will advise you on the correct medication, but, hydration remains the most important thing to do to keep your calf alive.

A 45kg calf with scour will need between seven to eight litres of fluid per day to prevent becoming dehydrated.

In days past, farmers would take the calf off milk as soon as they showed any signs of scour.

However, all recent evidence shows that keeping the calf on milk is by far the best practice.

Frequent small feeds are better than two large feeds. We advise feeding milk in the morning and in the evening as normal and making up the deficit with two feeds of an electrolyte solution at 1pm and last thing at night.

I have had complaints from farmers that keep feeding milk to calves with scour that, two days into treatment, the calf is still scouring, albeit not as severely. In previous years, when the calf was taken off milk, the scour dried up.

I would strongly argue that it is better that a calf scours for three to four days, getting better every day and makes a full recovery, than a calf that stops scouring after one day, but whose growth becomes stunted due to intestinal damage, or worse, dies from dehydration.

The earlier a calf with scour is identified the better - as the more dehydrated the calf is, the lower the chances of a full recovery.

Intravenous fluid therapy will sometimes be required.

Any farmer that has suffered through an outbreak of scour on their farm will know that it will double the work load. Any means available to prevent a scour outbreak should be used. Strict hygiene protocols should be in place. Only people who work on farm should be allowed into the calf shed and only after their boots and oilers have been thoroughly disinfected.

There are vaccines available to prevent many of the causes of scour in young calves. These are administered to the cow a number of weeks before calving and antibodies are passed on to the calf through good quality colostrums.

Nave ill

Also known as joint ill, this is a condition where the navel of the calf becomes swollen and painful.

It can also cause joints to become swollen and a young calf can become rapidly very lame. Immediate diagnosis is vital for a full recovery. On veterinary advice, the calf will need to go on a prolonged course of antibiotics.

Anti-inflammatory medication is important also as this is a very painful condition. However, prevention is always better than cure.

Immediate dressing of the calf's navel after birth with a clorhexidine and alcohol solution is best practice.

Remove the calf immediately after birth to a clean dry straw bed. Clean and disinfect the calving box after each calving.

Over the next day or two, take a few minutes to assess your calving box and calf sheds.

Consider implementing any vaccination strategy you're advised based on previous outbreaks. Ask yourself what small changes you can make now to make your life easier in a few weeks time.

Hopefully, that cow you have noticed "springing up nicely" over the last few days will hold out just a little bit longer before the sleepless nights begin.

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

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!

Indo Farming

For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App