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First aid in calves

Calves, like all young animals, can deteriorate rapidly when they get sick. To have the best chance of treating sick calves successfully, rapid identification and treatment is essential.

To achieve this on farm, there are some essential items you need to have available.

  • Thermometer
  • Electrolytes
  • 2 x Calf tuber
    • one specifically for the sick pen
    • one for feeding new-borns (DO NOT use the same one)
  • Ketomax for Pain relief/anti-inflammatory
  • Multimin injection
  • Disinfectant
  • Iodine navel spray
  • Flystrike prevention/treatment (particularly important for autumn calving herds)
  • Gloves
  • Sample containers to collect faeces.
  • Calf covers.

It is important to ensure that there is enough ventilation so that there is a regular circulation of clean air through the sheds. This circulation reduces the risk of respiratory diseases.

Although ventilation is key, it’s important that calves are not exposed to draughts. Get down on the calf level – try at different times of the day and under different weather conditions. Ensure that calves remain warm and dry – if you can feel draughts at their level, this will reduce growth rates as more energy is used to keep warm and less is available for growth.
Within the pen, ensure that calves have enough space. General recommendations are for around 1.5-2.5m2 per calf – the more you can give the better. This space will allow the calves to move around freely, explore, and play, as well as providing enough space for the whole group of calves to avoid any poor weather that may come in through the open side of the shed.

Once a calf has been identified with scours, it needs to be separated immediately to reduce the potential spread of disease to other calves. Oral electrolytes should be started immediately to replace fluid and electrolytes being lost due to the diarrhoea – they need six to eight litres per day, fed in three to four feeds. The calf’s temperature should be taken using a rectal thermometer; a healthy calf will have a normal body temperature between 38.5°C and 39.5°C, with a temperature over 39.5°C indicating a fever. If a calf has a fever, or has blood in the diarrhoea, injectable antibiotics and anti-inflammatories should be used as per your vet’s recommendation.

Collecting a faecal sample (before you start any treatment) from any calves with scours is also important so that we can identify what is causing the scours in your calves. Some of the tests can take up to two days once the sample is in the lab, so the sooner we receive the sample the sooner we can give you specific advice for your problem.

Another common problem in newborn calves is an infected navel (navel ill). All calves should have their navels disinfected with iodine spray on pick up from the paddock, and the navel should be checked frequently throughout the first couple of weeks in the calf sheds. An infection in the navel will allow bacteria to enter the blood stream, resulting in infections potentially occurring throughout multiple organs which can cause life-long problems. Any calf with a navel infection needs to be identified and treated as per your vet’s instructions to ensure the best outcome.

Calves should be fed twice a day for at least the first three weeks of life to give them the best start.
If you are having problems with your calves, or you would like to make a plan to ensure your farm is well prepared going into calving season.