Calf deaths: How accurate do you think you are?

Less than 10% of calves are submitted for post-mortem, which means farmers are diagnosing the death of calves themselves – according to a national report of six regional veterinary laboratories.

Consequently, a study was completed by Teagasc to find out how accurately farmers are diagnosing the cause of death of their calves.

For the purpose of the study, a post-mortem examination was carried out on 120 calves – which died between three and 122 days – over the course of seven years.

The symptoms reported by the farmer were then compared to the outcome of the post-mortem and laboratory test results. The five most common farmer and post-mortem diagnoses were compared.

Teagasc’s John Mee was at the Moorepark Open Day to discuss the findings of this study.

In calves less than seven days old, the most common causes of death were: blocked gut; other defects (deformed calf); colostrum tubed into lungs; scour; and systemic infection.

Explaining the findings of the study, John said: “In young calves (less than seven days), on average, seven out of 10 times the farmer is right in his diagnosis; so in young calves the farmer is good at picking up things.

“The farmer is particularly good at picking up a blocked gut or a deformed calf but poor at picking up scour, aspiration pneumonia and systemic infection.”

For systemic infection, there was a 0% agreement between the farmer and the post-mortem diagnosis.

Turning to the results for the older calves, he said: “But in the older calves six out of 10 times the farmer is wrong in their diagnosis – because the older calves experience different problems.

They usually get the easy ones right, such as a bloated calf. But you don’t tend to get many bloated calves less than seven days-of-age.

“The farmer is pretty good at diagnosing scour in older calves, but is not 100%.”

The study also found that farmers are “bad at diagnosing systemic infections, navals and can’t diagnose stomach ulcers – which are all reasons why the older calf dies”.


Summarising the results, he said: “What this shows is that in the young calves farmers are good at diagnosing the problem, but as the calves get older it is harder to diagnose the problem.

They particularly need to consider systemic infections and think past the obvious. Systemic infections should be considered even when a calf is diagnosed with a simple infection such as naval ill.

Systemic infection was the most “common cause of calf mortality”. It was “commonly reported as scour and farmers tended to under-diagnose the additional infection”.