Dairy advice: How to identify a sick calf

The spring-calving season is well underway on farms across the country, with many farmers hoping that the recent bad weather is behind us.

As the numbers of calves on the ground increase, farmers are finding themselves, and staff, becoming progressively busier. It is around this time that some sick/weak calves slip through the cracks and are only picked up on when it is too late.

Also with spring, for many farmers, come new employees. Unfortunately, not all farm employees are experts at calf rearing so they may need some guidance when it comes to identifying and treating sick/weak animals.

What to look for

Identification of a sick calf can sometimes be difficult. It is crucial for the survival of the calf that, when it is acting poorly, it is picked up on as early as possible to avoid disease escalation or, in the worst case, death.

Signs to look out for:
  • Slow to get up to feed or failure to get up at all;
  • Sunken eyes into eye sockets;
  • Breathing heavily or elevated heart rate;
  • Isolated from other calves;
  • Swollen or inflamed naval;
  • Nasal discharge;
  • Faecal consistency (should be a pudding consistency).

Prevention is better than cure

Farmers are well aware that prevention is better than cure when it comes to sick calves or any animals.

Feeding calves adequate amounts of quality colostrum is the first and possibly the most important prevention step. Teagasc recommends feeding calves at least 3L of colostrum within the first two hours of birth.

Calves also respond well to routine and so should be routinely fed morning and evening with either whole milk or milk replacer from birth to weaning.

In addition, Teagasc recommends limiting the amount of stress placed on calves. Stress could be caused by factors such as: transportation; sudden feed changes; crowding; temperature fluctuations; or drafts.