Disease management in dairy calves

The aim of every youngstock rearing unit should be to rear healthy animals with minimal mortality and optimal growth rates. A healthy calf in a clean, dry environment uses its feed more efficiently, grows well and has the best chance of achieving its full lifetime potential.

The healthy calf

A healthy calf uses its feed more efficiently. Calves turn feed into energy, which is used for maintenance (e.g. digestion and respiration), to keep themselves warm and fight disease. Any energy left over can be used for growth. A warm, healthy calf in a clean, dry, low-disease environment has more energy available for growth.

A sick, cold calf, on the other hand, has the same maintenance requirements but needs most of its remaining energy to keep warm and fight disease. These calves grow very slowly and inefficiently.

Identify common problems early

More than half of calves on UK farms suffer from disease before weaning and nearly all these diseases are scours and respiratory disease. With such a high incidence, it can be easy to accept the early signs of disease as ‘normal’ (e.g. it is not normal for calves to be coughing).

It can also be easy to miss calves with mild disease and to only identify and treat the very sick ones, especially in group housing. Even mild disease takes energy away from growth and can limit the animal’s lifetime potential. Don’t let ill health become normal. Identify and act at the first signs of problems.

Check calves at least twice a day and record and monitor early signs of disease. Treat disease if necessary, in discussion with your vet.

Identifying common problems early gives you the chance to reduce:

  • Severity and duration of the disease
  • Risk of irreversible damage (e.g. lung damage)
  • Harmful bugs in the environment
  • Spread of disease

Don’t leave it too late. Remember, going off milk is a late sign of disease.

Controlling cryptosporidiosis in dairy calves

Cryptosporidiosis is one of the most common causes of calf scour. The main signs include watery scour, dehydration and reduced feed intake. 

Find out the measures you can take to reduce the risk of cryptosporidiosis to your calves

Pneumonia in dairy calves

Pneumonia is one of the most significant diseases affecting calves, costing the UK cattle industry an estimated £50 million a year. Our range of resources can help you identify, treat and prevent pneumonia in your calves.

Learn more about reducing the risk of pneumonia in calves

Useful links

Calf management guide

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Calf notebook or Calf management guide, please contact publications@ahdb.org.uk or call 0247 799 0069.