Troubleshooting in the Calf Shed

by Rebekah Kloosterman, Vetora

Maintaining calf health



  • Either no stock movement / closed herd.
  • OR need testing in place – BVD, isolation before mixing with current stock calves and cows.


  • If sick – either isolation in ‘sick pen’ or don’t move from pen.
  • If using an isolation pen: incubation of Rotavirus 1-3 days, Coronavirus 3-5 days, Crypto about 4 days, Salmonella 1-5 days(TJ Parkinson, 2010), so a week of isolation is appropriate.
  • Cleaning procedures: organic material (dirt/poo) reduces effectiveness of disinfectants.
  • While calves in pen: clean gear well then disinfect.
  • Can ‘disinfect pens’ but spraying disinfectant on a mound of poo isn’t an effective use of disinfectant.
  • Cost effective disinfectants to use between batches of calves (or before the season) after removing 10cm of bedding are:
    • Active steam.
    • Sodium hypochlorite 5000ppm = FIL C3 30ml per litre. Water blast then apply and let dry – good disinfect but doesn’t kill crypto. To kill it you need
    • Hydrogen peroxide 6% usually by diluting a chlorine free pool or spa treatment (eg poppit, sanosil or perosil). Water blast first. (George M. Barrington, 2002)
  • Always disinfect calf feeding equipment too and use a respirator.


  • Clean boots/overalls.
  • Cleaning + disinfection staff and gear including feeders.
  • System: feed healthy calves/clean pens before sick/dirty so limit pathogen transmission.


  • Not much scientific data in this space so not covered today.
  • Clean water.


Will depend on farm goals, some options include:

  • BVD: ensure calves aren’t persistently infected (ear notch or blood sample) before vaccinating them (>3 months old).
  • Scour: can vaccinate cows against Rotavirus, Coronavirus and E. coli – works well, but you need to ensure the calves get the colostrum!

Monitoring calf health

Think of DEBT – something most people are familiar with.


  • Stance
  • Head/ear posture
  • Call vet if:
    • Sitting and not getting up with other calves
    • Laying flat out
    • Kicking at belly
    • Neck stretched out trying to breathe

Eating (drinking)

  • Compare to other calves.
  • Calves should drink their milk without stopping to ‘catch their breath’.


  • Dirty vs clean
  • Tails up/straining
  • Blood? Check if fresh (red) or black (digested) and call vet.


Get a thermometer – inexpensive

  • Normal temperature of a calf is 38.5-39.5°C (TJ Parkinson, 2010).
  • Above 39.5°C – need to do something, either Metacam first then monitor, or vet.
  • Below 38°C – call vet, move to warm shed out of elements.

Managing sick calves

As we all know, prevention is better than a cure. Sometimes however, scours are unavoidable.


  • Fluids are SUPER important. It is more likely that the dehydration will kill them than the actual pathogen that causes the diarrhoea.
    • Start with oral electrolytes. Tube feed or bottle feed depending on suckle reflex. 2L of good quality electrolytes (not all electrolytes are created equal), need to include sodium, energy, and an alkalizing agent(TJ Parkinson, 2010). Alternate electrolytes with milk if they are still sucking. The milk is still a good source of energy for the calf, so keep going if you can.
    • If weak suckle reflex, cold mouth, sunken eyes needs IV fluids – call vet.
  • ID pathogen – This can guide treatment. Common pathogens can be tested in a snap test. As well as providing info for treating this calf it will provide recommendations for preventing scours in future.
  • Pain relief: Metacam is on label for calves suffering from diarrhoea, they have some evidence that electrolytes + Metacam is more effective than electrolytes alone. (H. Philipp, 2003).
  • Antibiotics? Talk to vet.
  • Have a recording system so that you know what calves have been given electrolytes, been treated or need to be monitored.

Hernias and navel ill

  • Navel ill:
    • Prevention around drying/cleaning navel, clean calf pick up trailer, stopping calves sucking. Not a lot of scientific data, but iodine seems to be effective.
    • If infected can lead to joint infections, meningitis, navel abscesses.
  • Swollen navel doesn’t mean abscess.
  • Hernias –
    • have genetic component (TJ Parkinson, 2010) animal should not be used for breeding.
    • some will resolve spontaneously; some can be fixed – generally the smaller the animal the better.
  • If unsure whether abscess or hernia you can sometimes tell by the way it feels, otherwise ring the vet.


  • George M. Barrington, J. M. (2002). Biosecurity for the neonatal gastrointestinal diseases. Vet Clinical Food Animal, 17-34.
  • Philipp, H. S. (2003). Efficacy of Meloxicam as adjunct to a casic therapy for the treatment of diarrhoea in calves. (p. 273). Germany: Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health.
  • TJ Parkinson, J. V. (2010). Diseases of Cattle in Australasia. Wellington: VetLearn.

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