Beef 911: Easy treatments for young calves?

Modern treatments can minimize stress and handling of calves

A newborn black angus calf with it's mother

Over the years many of the effective treatments for bacterial scours and some for pneumonia in newborn calves have been taken away from us. Other antibiotics used in conditions such as viral scours are simply precautionary to prevent secondary bacterial invasion.

You all remember products such as synergistin, gentomycin and baytril which have either been discontinued or they are highly frowned for us as veterinarians prescribing them for a number of reasons I won’t get into here. Some newer veterinary products allow us to be effective in our treatment, they generally have a wide spectrum of effectiveness, most times are subcutaneous and most recently much longer-acting products have been developed.

It can never be stressed enough the importance of that calf’s first suck in the first six hours of life for the transfer of immunoglobulins and natural protection from disease. We all know calves that get sick for any reason in early life even if they don’t carry forward chronic problems are often 100 or so pounds lighter than herdmates at weaning.

In the past most products (antibiotics) given for sickness were daily intramuscular shots. This often meant to complete the treatment calves had to be run down and snared, cornered, trapped, leg snared, jumped or whatever means possible to give the final treatment. This alone can be stressful enough and impede the calf’s recovery.

Today by selecting the right treatment regime most times the initial treatment is all that is given. If a second treatment is necessary it is given several days later depending on the efficacy of the initial treatment. Less handling results in the calves doing better and it is much easier to control biosecurity. You as the medicator are not spreading disease by handling the calves so much.

Depending on the disease situation your veterinarian may or may not recommend segregation or isolation to minimize the risk of spreading it to others. Calf scours would be an example of a disease where isolation or segregation would be practised whereas navel infection is often an individual event and the calf is treated and left with its herdmates. Navel infection could point to a problem in the calving area where cleaning and disinfection could be necessary.

Most of the longer-acting products give at least four days’ protection and are given subcutaneously. Newborn or young calves are often hard to find much muscle on anyways. Giving shots subcutaneously supports “Verified Beef Production” guidelines and we avoid the muscle damage intramuscular shots cause. Even some of the injectable selenium is approved for subcutaneous application nowadays. One antibiotic product “Excede” has seven days of effectiveness and for now is approved in Canada for application at the base of the ear. One must talk to your veterinarian as with all these products it is an extremely long time before they would enter the food chain and the risk of residues affecting meat withdrawal. Meat withdrawals are then really a non-issue when treating these young calves.

Specific conditions such as coccidiosis require a diagnosis as treatment is fairly specific consisting of sulfa products and intestinal protectants such as kaopectate or activated charcoal. Keep a good veterinary client-patient relationship with your veterinarian so they can keep you updated on the latest products for treating calf issues so survival rate can be kept high. One case may lead to prevention on the rest of the herd. There are now vaccines for certain diseases such as pneumonia or scours which can be used on penmates to prevent spread.

Good bedding and keeping the calves from being chilled also helps to ward off disease. Calves having a creep area allows them to avoid stress and find a quiet place where they can rest when the need arises. Your veterinarian may or may not prescribe prophylactic antibiotics at birth. This will depend on the disease prevalence, the confinement the calves are born under, weather conditions and many other variables too numerous to mention here.

This is why you and your herd veterinarian are the best to collectively come up with prophylactic medication if it is necessary. The most common antibiotic given prophylactically is tetracycline to try and prevent navel infection if it is a problem. As with all disease conditions of neonatal calves if incidence rises you and the herd veterinarian need to look at forms of prevention. This may encompass such things as disinfection, stricter biosecurity, immunizing the cow so protection is passed down in the colostrum, moving the calving area and/or starting a new location for recent pairs.

The big issue of calves getting sick besides the obvious death loss is, as already mentioned, calves’ weaning weight will be much lower than herdmates and that is dollars lost. They may have permanent lung or intestinal damage and are much more likely to reoccur with the same disease at a later date.

This has been proven time and again with colostrum-deficient calves. Watch closely those first few weeks as many major infectious problems have been eliminated by recognizing the clinical signs early followed by aggressive treatment.

The reward is healthy salable large calves come weaning time.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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