News & Advice

Calf calamities – When Disease Strikes

Aug 1, 2022 | Dairy, Young Stock

Hanneke Officer, Veterinarian, Anexa FVC Rototuna

Scouring causes damage to the gut, meaning less nutrients and fluids are absorbed. In addition, fluid and energy are lost. Dehydration occurs, growth rates fall and in the worst situations death results.

Sick or scouring calves? Don’t go it alone – Anexa Vets can help, contact your local clinic or request a booking online.

With the seasonality of dairy farming in New Zealand, calf sheds get overrun for a couple of months of the year and then stand empty. In a small amount of time, many calves pass through, all leaving their excrement behind. No wonder the calves get sick, right?
Not necessarily, some big calf operations deal with limited to no calf disease. So what can you do to prevent it? 

  • Colostrum management – as mentioned in our previous newsletters, this is the most important prevention tool you have against calf disease. 
  • Hygiene/biosecurity – this is relevant to bedding (spraying as well as topping up), calf feeders, your clothing/boots and other equipment used with the calves. 
  • Nutrition – providing calves with enough food and fresh water to manage requirements for both maintenance and growth. 
  • All-in-all-out system – once a pen is full, no new calves get added or swapped. 
  • Housing – don’t overstock and check for draughts and the smell of ammonia. 


What are the most important factors around the risk of sick calves? 

How do we reduce the spread of infection?
  • Isolate calves as soon as possible to a designated ‘sick calf’ pen 
  • Feed and treat them last 
  • Scrub with disinfectant before and after, and/or have separate gear (gumboots, overalls, thermometers, gloves, feeders etc) 
  • Sick calves should not go back into their original pen; they might seem better, but they can still be shedding bugs. 


How do we treat calf scours?
  • What are you dealing with? The most common conditions are scours, lung infection, bloat and navel/joint ill. 
  • If you’re not sure what to use, call your Vet. Ideally you should have a protocol in place so you know which treatment is best used. 
  • Remember for scours, dehydration is the biggest killer, so electrolytes and fluids are vital. Don’t forget though, milk is necessary for nutrients. We have plenty of scour protocols available to you at Anexa, so make sure to ask us even if it’s just in case. Being prepared is half the job. 
  • Be familiar with the different types of treatment and have some on hand including electrolytes, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. 
  • Check with your calf rearers; are they confident treating calves? Specific farm training can be organised if upskilling is needed or wanted. 
  • Don’t forget the impact of hypothermia (cold); sick calves don’t eat/drink as much and therefore often haven’t got enough energy to maintain their core body temperature. Bedding and calf covers can make a big difference. 


How do we prevent scouring calves?
  • To reduce morbidity (number of animals affected) and prevent issues in the future, it’s important to identify the cause: 
  • Scour samples – the pathogen can be cultured from scour samples, which helps to create a more specific treatment regime, but can also help to set up a prevention strategy through for example vaccination or feed/milk additives. 
  • For illnesses other than scours, there might be housing or management factors that need a risk assessment and adjustment. 


REMEMBER above all, calves are born without immunity and rely heavily on adequate colostrum management. This is a vital step in disease prevention. Purchase a BRIX refractometer at your local Anexa Vet clinic to test the quality of the colostrum on your farm, and endeavour to feed each calf colostrum within the first 12 hours of life.

Aside from that, your local Anexa Vet has a lot of information to help you reduce disease prevalence and optimise the rearing of your future dairy cows. Don’t be afraid to ask. Too often we see young stock that are under performing.


Other Anexa resources you may find helpful:

Treatment of scoring calves.pdf

Prudent antibiotic use for calf scours.pdf

Calf First Aid

Colostrum & calf immunity – why is it such a race against the clock?

Calf scours due to Salmonella




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