Beef 911: Intestinal problems can come out of the blue

Some calves seem to be flourishing but they are suddenly struck down

two calves

Every spring, the sudden deaths of apparently healthy calves frustrate good managers. This article will shed some light on the cause of these internal conditions and help producers realize some things are simply beyond their control.

We see one to two per cent perforating ulcers every spring on many well-managed farms. These are ulcers on the abomasum (fourth stomach), which have eaten right through the entire wall, allowing gut contents to spill out into the abdomen. These calves die within 24 hours of this happening, and most are found as a sudden death. If alive they are very shocky, weak, and dehydrated; may be down; and are often full or bloated on both sides of their abdomen. It is very often your oldest calves that seem to be doing very well.

Initially the cause of these was suspected to be everything from clostridial diseases and hairballs to BVD and copper deficiency to genetics. A lot of these probable causes were pretty much ruled out by a group of researchers out of the veterinary college in Saskatoon in a study done more than 15 years ago. They surveyed herds across Western Canada and found these calves generally are in the six- to eight-week range when they ulcerate and are generally the upper end as far as growth. The incidence was just as high in well-managed herds where a lot of the suspect causes could be ruled out.

Big changes

At the six- to eight-week stage, calves are changing from essentially a single-stomached animal to one that ruminates, whereby the rumen is enlarging. As a result the calves’ diet is changing from only mother’s milk to roughage and something triggers this ulcer formation. Ulcers happen on calves picking at hay or where their mothers are primarily fed silage. No study has followed up since, but I rarely see ulcers on later-born calves that go through this transition at pasture. The diet change is much more subtle going from milk to milk and very fine soft new grass. Perhaps this more natural change has something to do with it. Perhaps dead calves are not found to be checked at pasture but in the future perhaps this question can be researched and answers found.

For now, some producers must live with the fact a low percentage of good calves get this condition and die. For a very few — if found early enough and just have colicky signs — surgery can be done and the area resected. But they must be found fast and treated before the ulcer has perforated.


Calves in spring can be presented to a veterinary clinic simply full with no manure being passed. If they are alert and lively a hairball or other object causing an obstruction could be the cause. Often these are initially treated with laxatives to see if the object will pass. If not, surgery is performed and an enterotomy (cut into the intestines) incision done right over the obstruction and the calf will generally make an uneventful recovery.

If this situation is left, an intussusception may develop, which is essentially the telescoping of the intestine into itself. Peristalsis is the contractions which move feed down the intestinal tract. With an obstruction or sometimes spontaneously the intestines overdo this process and telescope on themselves. The resultant swelling and scarring in itself then will also cause a blockage. Surgery can again be done and often the involved area of intestines is removed back to normal and the two ends are then joined together. The intestines will heal quickly and again an uneventful recovery is often the result after a few days of convalescence.


Torsions are intestinal accidents generally involving the small intestines, spiral colon, ceacum (equivalent to the human appendix) or the abomasum. Calves get shocky and bloated very quickly. Again, if surgery is performed to correct the torsion, it must be done right away. Otherwise, blood supply is damaged to the intestines or stomach since the torsion acts essentially like a tourniquet on the affected tissues. If you wait even a couple of hours the prognosis is very grave indeed on all the intestinal-related torsions. These can be harder to fully diagnose and with all these intestinal problems an exploratory surgery can be the most revealing. Your veterinarian can give a very good idea on eventual outcome if they have experience dealing with these intestinal-type accidents.

Umbilical hernia

Every year we have several cases of small intestines on newborn calves eviscerating out through an umbilical hernia site. Sometimes the hernial contents will be contained within a sac. These are a dire veterinary emergency and if rushed into the clinic for surgery they can have a high rate of success. If the contents are contaminated by straw or dirt, or stepped on by the calf, the odds reduce drastically.

The best thing to do with these calves is get them upside down so no more intestines fall out from gravity. Wrapping a clean wet towel around the area facilitates this and prevents any exposed intestines from drying out. If surgery can be performed without much contamination to the area the veterinarian replaces the herniated contents, repairs the hernial site, and covers them with antibiotics. What is really critical here is how quick producers discover them and how they are transported into the clinic. The minute your veterinarian examines them he/she can give you a fairly accurate prognosis as to the final outcome and whether surgery is worth it.

The causes of abdominal problems are varied. In half of the cases, diagnosis is made on autopsy. Other cases can have favourable outcomes if surgery is performed. So quickly have any of these conditions checked by your veterinarian, as time is often of the essence, as they are true veterinary emergencies. With prices of calves today and their future potential value, the cost to perform individual surgeries is often worth taking the chance if the prognosis is reasonable. If in doubt, quickly phone the veterinary clinic to get advice on the specific intestinal problem your calf has. Many times, heroics will win the day and it will be a case you will talk about for years to come — especially if the calf becomes marketable.

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