Daily Health Checks for Dairy Calves
Posted: December 9, 2004
Daily health checks need to be conducted to ensure the health and comfort of calves. They serve as a means of evaluating calves for current and potential health problems, updating records, and providing overall health information for the calf operation. These heath records can also serve as veterinary and management diagnostic tools.
Often the first sign of illness in a calf is the loss of appetite. Paying attention to calves that drink more slowly than normal is a first important observation. Calves will need to be closely monitored for pending problems if they display any of the following behaviors: play with their milk rather than drink it with vigor, lie down immediately after drinking most or all of the milk, act listless at feeding time, or refuse all or part of the milk. These behaviors are not normal for a healthy calf and often are the beginning of further health problems.
Using your visual observation of the calf is the next important phase of daily health checks. Calves should appear to have clear bright eyes, not eyes that are sunken, watery or glazed. Their ears should be slightly erect and turned forward, not droopy or turned down. Their nose should be moist, not runny or dry or showing signs of obvious mucus. The calf should be breathing slowly and evenly, not rapid, panting or breathing with obvious labor. The hair coat should be shiny and smooth to slightly curly with no flaking, patchy, or brittle skin appearance. Calves should appear dry and comfortable, with no signs so being cold or shivering. When healthy calves get up from resting they should stretch and remain stable when standing. Above all, they should eat vigorously and suckle for more food when finished.
Next use your nose and check the breath of the calf. It should smell sweet to slightly sour and not smell rancid or curdled. Smell the air around the calf pen also. It should smell fresh with no unpleasant or sour odors that might indicate other health problems.
Finally, use your ears to check the calf and its surroundings. Listen to evaluate if calves sound and appear hungry near feeding time. In addition, they should appear content and quiet shortly after feeding time and while they are resting. Always listen for coughing or labored breathing by calves when you are in a calf housing area. The quiet sounds of calves resting and nibbling on grain should be the norm when it is not close to, or after feeding time.
Each calf in a facility deserves 30 seconds or more of a calf manager’s attention every day, and often more than once a day. Being sensitive and aware of what signs the calf may be displaying is the job of the calf caregiver. Observing key signs of healthy calves or those that may need special attention or treatment is a vital part of the job of a calf raiser.
Jud Heinrichs, Dairy & Animal Science Extension