Back to basics calf care: is the abnormal your normal – and what you can do about that

By Lilian Schaer, Agricultural Writer

There’s always a risk of disease or other health problems when raising livestock. And risk of illness or even death can be a little higher in the veal industry because animals are often sourced from various farms, not just a single origin.

Healthy calves are productive calves, and there are a variety of things producers can watch for as indicators that there might be a health problem in the herd.

The most obvious are actual symptoms of disease; laboured breathing, coughing or nasal discharge, for example, can be signs of respiratory disease.

Changes in the colour, quantity or consistency of manure can be a sign of diarrhea or other illness, and the onset of a wide range of diseases is often signalled by reduction in appetite, also known as calves going off-feed. Daily data records supplied by automatic calf feeders can be a great indicator of which animals might be getting sick.

Another important thing to watch for is a change in social behaviour. Calves who suddenly stop playing or running around and instead become lethargic may well be developing illness.

In general, it means a keen eye for observation is an important skill to have when working with calves, but sometimes, producers become “barn blind”. A slight abnormality goes undetected and gradually becomes the new normal, leading to longer-lasting and more complex health problems in the barn.

A good way to find out where problems might be happening is to evaluate each stage of calf growth for sickness and death rates to better pinpoint emerging issues. The longer problems remain under the radar, the costlier they become to treat and fix.

Along with that, do some research into what the industry norms or benchmarks are. Consulting online resources or even talking to other producers can help, but the best solution is to work with a veterinarian when it comes to troubleshooting high mortality rates or other problems in the herd. In fact, a veterinary-client-patient-relationship (VCPR) is one of the most important components of good animal care on-farm.

Your veterinarian knows your herd, and they are an excellent resource to help when things are out of control with the health of your livestock. Managing sick calves is difficult and takes a mental, physical and emotional toll on people. It can also sometimes be indicative of a larger, overarching issue, so turning to a veterinarian for help can provide the support that’s needed to make necessary changes to improve calf welfare.

Once your health problems are under control:

  • look for preventative measures you can implement so the issue won’t flare up again
  • develop standard operating procedures
  • monitor colostrum management, growth performance and calf health status                      
  • include calf health management into your regular herd health visits

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.