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Calf health: Act early to spot signs of mild disease during rearing stage

More than half of calves on UK farms suffer from disease before weaning, almost all of which is due to scours and respiratory disease. 

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A guide has been launched by the Royal Veterinary College and Volac to help farmers identify the early signs of poor calf health so they can attempt to nip disease in the bud and ultimately reduce heifer mortality, which is currently running at about 14 per cent prior to first calving.


Kate Johnson, a PhD student at the Royal Veterinary College, says mild cases of disease among calves can be easy to miss when compared with spotting and treating really sick calves, particularly in group housing.

Milk rejection

She says: “Milk rejection, for example, is often used as a sign of disease, however it is far from accurate. If calves are fed less than eight litres of milk per day, it will only be at the final stages of disease that a calf will stop drinking. At this point, the calf may be so sick, the damage caused will be irreversible.


Some of Ms Johnson’s latest research on 12 dairy farms measured incidences of diarrhoea and respiratory disease - the two main contagious causes of death pre-weaning - which also reduce growth rates. The findings indicated 48 per cent of the animals involved suffered from scours, while 46 per cent incurred respiratory disease.


“With such a high incidence of disease, problems stop being noticed and it is easy to accept the early signs as being ‘normal’,” says Ms Johnson. “Both scours and respiratory disease impact on husbandry demands and vet costs. For surviving animals, it influences their performance. Even a relatively mild case of respiratory disease takes energy away from growth - up to 1kg per week.

Early diagnosis

“If you want to give each of your calves the best opportunity in life, then identifying the early signs of trouble is essential.


“You should draw up a health plan with your vet which you can implement before the calf becomes so sick it will go off its milk.”


Volac’s Dr Jessica Cooke advises calf rearers adopt a five-point plan to ensure ‘ill health does not become normal’ (see panel).


Identify common problems early – five point plan

1. Check calves at least twice a day to make sure they are all healthy. Look at the following areas:

Head: Check eyes, nose, breathing and ears

Eating: Are calves keen to drink milk and eat solid feed?

Appearance: Are they bright, curious, playful, good coat condition and have a dry navel?

Legs: Are they sound on all four legs, with a relaxed posture?

Temperature: Normal temperature of a calf should be about 38-39degC

Hindquarters: Are they clean and dry?

You: Healthy calves save you time and money

2. Identify common problems early - use the traffic light poster (see below) for scours and respiratory

3. Record and monitor early signs of disease - record the calf’s ID, date and symptom or treatment

4. Treat if necessary - in accordance with your vet.

5. Make preventative or corrective measures

The Healthy Calf Poster

RVC and Volac have launched two posters to pin up in the calf shed. They should help you and the person responsible for calf rearing to identify the early signs of scours and respiratory disease.


Green: Look for signs of good health and vigour in calves. Calves in good health should be bright, playful, curious and lively with clear eyes and nose, clean hindquarters and be keen to drink milk.


Amber: Act at early warning signs of problems - remember going off milk is a late sign of sickness. Contact your vet or implement a treatment plan. Early signs include discharge from eyes or nose, occasional coughs as well as dirty hocks and tails and being reluctant to show normal healthy behaviours like curiosity and playfulness. This is when to act - treatment protocols planned with your vet have a better chance of success for these calves.


Red: Late signs of disease - these are calves at risk of death. Make sure everyone knows your action plan - you should develop a standard operating procedure for calf disease with your vet. Make sure everybody knows when and how to act for sick calves so that any cases get treated straight away.


Copies of the poster are available from Volac (0800 919 808 FREE) or from its stand at Livestock Event


Identifying common problems early gives the opportunity to:

  • Reduce the severity and duration of the disease
  • Reduce the risk of irreversible damage, for example of the lungs
  • Reduce harmful bugs in the environment
  • Reduce the spread of disease
  • Remember disease control should always be carried out in accordance with your vet
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