clean clipped udderDisease can be very challenging in the calf barn. The easiest way to keep disease under control is to reduce calves’ exposure to pathogens. How we do that is easier said then done.

The first way to reduce exposure is to remove the calf from the cow within the first hour after birth. This could be as simple as pulling the calf behind a small temporary pen within the maternity pen. This pen should have clean straw and no cow contamination, with the bedding replaced after every ten calves.

If calves are left with the cow longer than one hour after birth, they are exposed to more pathogens because of the increased risk of manure contact from the cow. For example, on its first attempt to stand, the calf may take a few “face plants” before it is strong enough to stand entirely on its own four legs. This can be a source of contamination if the bedding around the cow has a high bacteria count. Another pathogen source is the cow. When a newborn calf is trying to nurse, its mouth will grab the first thing it can get, which could be a manure–contaminated leg, a dirty tail or a dirty udder.

Trouble Shooting Disease Problems in Calves
Calf Risk Assessment Checklist


Calves should be fed youngest to oldest. Feed that is refused by one calf should not be offered to another animal. This avoids spreading disease as illness is often why calves refuse to eat.

To help to identify the signs of disease, Dr. Sheila McGuirk at the University of Wisconsin has put together Calf Health Scoring Criteria. This is an excellent resource to help score calves on sickness. When using the scoring system, ensure the same person is scoring calves, or that there is agreement amongst all those scoring by initially comparing calf assessments together.
Calf Health Scoring Chart

It is important to remember that some calves with high exposure to pathogens will never get sick, whereas others with limited exposure are sick often. The reasons behind this are hard to explain, although some believe genetics are a factor.

A disease prevention message from beyond the grave