As more dairy farmers move toward group management of young calves, finding the sick calves in the pen becomes a greater challenge.
It’s critical to find sick calves fast. Not only are you trying to minimize the effects of illness on the individual calf, you need to prevent the illness from becoming an outbreak, says Amy Stanton, an animal well-being specialist with the University of Wisconsin.
The key to finding sick calves is to observe calves several times each day. "Don’t observe calves immediately after handling, pen cleaning or after potentially frightening experiences," she says.
You need to observe them when the barn is quiet so you can detect natural, ongoing behaviors. "Look at each calf as an individual, looking for excretions from the nose, respiratory effort and signs of diarrhea," she says.
Also look for sick behaviors, such as calves that are slow to stand when you enter the pen and those that don’t approach you or explore novelty.
Sick calves will also lie away from pen mates, or stand apart when pen mates are lying down. And while sick calves might get up when other calves are feeding, they’ll hang back and not eat.
Also look for calves with arched backs, which is a sign of intestinal upset, or those with lowered heads.
The most stressful period in a young calf’s life comes at weaning. "Holstein calves will drink 21/2 gal. of milk per day by three weeks of age," Stanton says.
"If calves are vocalizing two or three days after weaning, they’re probably hungry," she says. They need to be eating plenty of calf starter before weaning to make up for the loss of milk nutrients.
Also avoid other stressors at weaning such as vaccinations and de-horning. If possible, use all-in, all-out management to avoid socialization and disease stressors.