News & Advice

Tail-end calves: Weak, meek or something to tweak?

Jul 30, 2023 | Dairy, Young Stock

Arnica van der Wiele, Veterinarian, Anexa Vets Ngatea

“Why do I get so many sick calves in the second half of calving? I do exactly the same things as at the start but suddenly get outbreaks of diarrhoea.”

We often hear this and although each case is unique there are many common factors at play here: 

  • Less cows left to calve means more limited supply of first milking “gold” colostrum for your newborn calves. It is very likely that they do not receive enough antibodies from their first feeds of colostrum. 
  • Hygiene in calf shed is deteriorating. Bedding might have become damp to wet and there will be a build up of bacteria and viruses through accumulated calf excrement and other secretions. 

Antibodies and therefore immunity are below optimal levels while infection pressure from the environment increases. This can be a recipe for disaster and disease can spread quickly.

To prevent this remember the three Qs of colostrum management: 

  • QUANTITY:  Make sure every calf receives enough good quality colostrum in its first feeds: 10-15% of the calf’s liveweight as a minimum. 
  • QUICKLY:  We need to get colostrum into newborn calves quickly, within the first 6-12 hours of life before the newborn calf gut ‘closes’. 
  • QUALITY:  Measure colostrum antibody levels with a BRIX refractometer; you can’t judge colostrum quality on colour or consistency. Only feed colostrum >22% BRIX to your newborns. 

NB. Because the abomasal (first stomach) capacity is only 1.5 to 2 litres we need to split feeds so each feed contains no more than 2L. For a 40kg Friesian calf this means 4 litres of colostrum (10% minimum) split into 2 feeds of 2 litres fed within the first 6-12 hours of life.

Measuring the quality of your colostrum will actually save you time and make you money in the long run.  You set the calf up to fight infection right from the start which means reduced disease severity, faster recovery and less losses.

Think about the above for a second: Your and your staff’s approach to colostrum management in calves might have consequences for their performance and therefore your profitability years down the track. Talk about hidden costs! 

Electrolytes Electrolytes Electrolytes 

Most sick calves don’t benefit from antibiotics. The first thing they need is fluids. Ill calves dehydrate very quickly which makes them look dramatically sick. You have to act fast for the best chance of a good result. Rehydrate them quickly with a tube feeder and/or call your vet to give her intravenous fluids. It is amazingly satisfying to see how an animal that is flat on her side is running around an hour later like nothing has happened.

Another reason to get a vet out immediately is to assess if there is risk of an outbreak. We can get you the right treatment early or put preventative measures in place to stop the problem from spreading.



Other resources you may be interested in:

How to respond to calf that refuses a milk feed

Colostrum management 

Treatment of scouring calves

How to use a BRIX refractometer

Calf calamities – When Disease Strikes

Scours – have they hit yet? Or are they lurking around the corner?

Calf First Aid

Podcast – Calves: from weaning to grazing



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