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Special Care Recommendations For Calves

A brown calf being fed from a bottle indoors.
Calves are awfully cute, but you need to know how to provide the right care for them! – Photo from Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary

Updated March 25, 2020

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This resource has been reviewed for accuracy and clarity by a qualified Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with farmed animal sanctuary experience as of March 2020.

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Calves (baby cows) have their own special care needs to help them reach adulthood in good health and comfort. Depending on how old they are when they enter your care and whether they have had or continue to have access to their mother, calves have diverse needs when it comes to health, nutrition, and socialization.

Sanctuary Intake Recommendations For Calves

When a new calf finds their way to your sanctuary, it’s critical to follow appropriate intake and quarantine guidelines in order to protect your new resident and the existing herd. The calf should be neutered (or spayed if this is part of your care protocols) if deemed appropriate by your veterinarian, receive all location-appropriate vaccinations, and should be tested for any health issues. It’s best to neuter a male calf when they are young, typically between one and three months old, to avoid the complications that can arise when neutering an older calf or mature male cow (also called a “bull”), but individuals with health issues may need to wait.  Depending on regional laws, you may need to register guardianship of the calf with your local government. If they are with their mother, you should not separate the two unless absolutely necessary (especially if the calf is still nursing) such as if one of them has a communicable illness or needs extra space to recover from a health issue.  Always weigh the stress of separation with the benefits.

Incoming calves in particular must be tested for Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), and can not be kept with any Johne’s-positive animals in your herd as they are most susceptible to catching the disease.  While Johne’s screening is an important aspect of incoming cow procedures, testing calves who are under six months old is often not advised because the antibodies they received from their mother can affect the results.  However, calves under six months old can become infected with Johne’s but typically won’t show clinical signs until they are 2-5 years old.  Work with your veterinarian to come up with a plan for Johne’s testing based on the calf’s age, health, and whether or not you know their mother’s Johne’s status.

The Complications Of Johne's Testing

Unfortunately, screening for Johne’s disease in animals who are not showing clinical signs of the disease is difficult. This is why it is important to work with your veterinarian to determine the best protocol for Johne’s testing. The Johne’s PCR fecal test is the most accurate way to test for the disease, but cows who have been infected can still test negative if they are not currently shedding the disease. Because of the possibility of false negatives, repeat testing and watching for clinical signs is imperative.

Be sure to monitor the calf’s rectal temperature daily for fever and monitor joints and navel for any signs of heat, swelling, pain, or discharge twice a day.  Typically, a calf’s temperature should be between 99.9 and 102.5, but a healthy calf’s temperature can fluctuate due to environmental factors and activity level and could reach 103.5 without actually being cause for concern.  This is why it’s important to consider many factors when assessing a calf’s temperature- a calf who is bright and constantly playing who has a temperature of 103.5 is very different than a calf who has that same temperature but also has runny eyes, a cough, and doesn’t have a great appetite.  Taking a calf’s temperature either in the morning and/ or evening will likely give you the most accurate reading.  After the first few days, assuming the calf appears healthy and has not been spiking a fever, you can take the calf’s temperature once a day instead of twice.  If you have concerns regarding a calf’s temperature, always consult with your veterinarian and be prepared to give them other information about how the calf is doing overall (appetite, activity level, and if they have any other signs of concern).  If the umbilical cord is still attached or the navel is still open, be sure to keep this area clean.  If the calf is over 7 days old, the navel and any remaining umbilical cord should be completely dry.  Upon intake, dip the umbilical cord in 7% providone-iodine solution or a 2% chlorhexidine solution, then clean twice daily with dilute 0.5% chlorhexidine until healed.  It’s best to allow the umbilical cord to dry up and fall off on it’s own.  If you have the capability to weigh the calf, this is a good idea and allows you to monitor for appropriate weight gain.

Immediate Treatment Required

If an incoming calf is showing symptoms of navel or joint ill (discussed in more detail below), or if they appear to have even the smallest limp in one of their legs, they must be hospitalized immediately and treated as these diseases can quickly cause irreversible damage and lead to sepsis which can be fatal.

Food And Nutritional Recommendations For Calves

Colostrum

With calves, nutritional care decisions hinge upon their precise age and whether they have received their mother’s (or a different recent mother cow’s) colostrum immediately after birth. Unlike humans, cows do not receive passive immunity through placenta; rather, they must ingest protective immunoglobulins through colostrum, the first milk produced by their mother when they are born. This substance also contains important nutrients and growth hormones which help the cow properly develop. Without colostrum, calves lack the crucial immune system boost required to help them survive and thrive until their own immune system develops. There is only about a 24 hour window for the calf’s intestinal lining to be able to absorb the colostrum’s antibodies, with the first 6 hours after birth being the most effective absorption time and an exponential loss in effectiveness as the day goes on. They should have 2 quarts of colostrum within four hours of birth and 4 quarts total within 12 hours of birth.

If a calf did not receive adequate colostrum in the first crucial hours of their life, they must receive rapid medical intervention. If they are less than a day old, you should still try to administer actual or artificial colostrum, but once they’re more than a day old it is effectively useless. Make sure you are buying a colostrum “replacement” versus a “supplement” as the supplement does not contain enough IgG proteins to provide the calf with the essential level they require. Check packaging carefully- it will state which type it is.  If you do not know if the calf received colostrum, or do not know if they received enough, you can work with your veterinarian to test them for Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT).  Calves who haven’t received colostrum should be provided rapid treatment including blood transfusions and possibly antibiotics administered in a clean veterinary environment. If you are not willing to take this course of action for a calf who did not receive adequate colostrum, there is a very good chance they will not survive or will be prone to a life where they are always more susceptible to infectious diseases.

Bottle Feeding

Without a mother present, you’ll have to feed a calf with a bottle, artificial nipple, or bucket for at least four weeks. Calves should be fed warmed milk (store bought whole cow’s milk works well for calves) or (less preferably) warmed calf milk formula (either should be typically heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit).  If using a milk replacer, be sure to use one formulated specifically for calves, and follow the directions on the package when preparing.  The milk replacer will come with a scoop provided and all mixing instructions will be based on using that scoop, so don’t throw it out!  While it can be more expensive, whole cow’s milk is easier for digestion and is less likely to cause scours (diarrhea- discussed in more detail below).  Calves should be fed at least 10-12% of their body weight, though your veterinarian may recommend more, especially if you are feeding whole cow’s milk.  Feeding too much milk replacer can cause stomach upset, so they may suggest you stick with 10-12% body weight to prevent issues. If you took in a calf in the middle of this period of their life, try to get what the calf had been eating before coming to their new home so you can gradually transition their diet. This will prevent the likelihood of stomachaches or other digestive problems as their body adjusts.

Calculating Milk Volume Based On Body Weight

1 Liter of whole milk or prepared milk replacer (mixed according to package instructions) weighs about 1kg. Starting with that knowledge makes calculating milk volume much easier. You can follow this formula: 

Steps Example
Weigh calf  Calf weighs 90lbs
Convert weight to kg if weighing in lbs 90/2.2= 40.9kg
Multiply weight in kg by percent you want to feed to get total amount per day If feeding 10% body weight

 

40.9kg x 10% = 4.09L milk per day

Divide total amount fed per day by the number of meals to determine amount to feed at each meal If feeding 4 times per day

 

4.09L/ 4 meals = 1L per feeding

Now that you know the principles, you can use our free calculators below to sort out the math for you!

To assist in their rumen development, you can start offering calves a small amount of calf starter when they are 3 days old.  At first they may not eat it, but it’s good to have it available to them.  Increase the amount when they start showing interest in eating it.  Until they’re two weeks old, they should have milk split between four and six feedings per day. After two weeks you can reduce the number of feedings without reducing the overall amount of milk (meaning larger milk amounts fed less often).  Be sure to increase their overall milk intake as they grow!  A healthy calf will grow quickly, so be sure to adjust their milk amount to reflect this.  Ensure that you sterilize their bottle after each feeding, either with a baby safe sterilizing agent, a sterilizing appliance, or with boiling water. You should always keep high quality hay, calf starter grain, and water in their living space available should they decide they want to try eating on their own (you can pick up the calf starter at night to prevent attracting mice or rats).  When offering a bottle or artificial nipple, always check the nipple to ensure milk does not pour freely out when the bottle is inverted.  This could cause the calf to aspirate which can lead to pneumonia.  Instead, milk should only come out when the calf suckles.  Discard any nipples that do not work properly.  Shoof makes calf bottles, such as the Speedy Feeder, which help prevent aspiration.  

If They Cannot Suckle

If a calf cannot take in food via bottle, artificial nipple, or bucket feeding, you may need to teach them how to suckle. Try seeing if they’ll suck on your finger, then carefully replacing your finger with the artificial nipple. It might take quite a few introductions until they get the hang of it! Don’t put your hand in a cow’s mouth fully as they can reactively bite down and cause massive injuries to fingers. Do not enlarge the nipple size as this can lead to aspiration. If they are truly struggling with the concept, you may need to feed the calf via intubation until they learn so they continue to receive the vital nutrition they need to develop. Do not intubate any animal without receiving in-person training from an expert, as they can easily drown if not intubated exactly correctly every time.  An injection of selenium is commonly given to calves who have a weak suckle response- contact your veterinarian for specific instructions.

Transitioning To Solid Foods

When the calf is eating calf starter and hay (or pasture) regularly, or around the time they are 1 month old, you can start offering free choice mineral access.  Ensure that they do not overindulge in the minerals, removing access for the rest of a day if necessary. When the calf appears to be eating hay and calf starter well, you can begin slowly reducing their milk while giving them more solid food access. Bottle or bucket feeding might continue for up to 16 weeks, though the calf may transition fully to solid food well before this time. They should be eating hay (or pasture if your sanctuary’s foliage can fully support their diet) as the bulk of their diet once weaned, but your veterinarian may recommend you continue to offer measured amounts of calf starter.  

If The Calf Has Their Mother

If a calf came to your sanctuary along with their mother (or if a pregnant cow came to your sanctuary), you should let their mother take charge of feeding and nutrition for the most part as long as you are confident she is producing enough milk to do so. They will wean off of their mother’s milk when they feel it is appropriate, and as long as you have solid food and minerals available for when they make that decision, they will time their development much better than a human would in most circumstances! Both cows will be much happier to have each other than if they had been separated.

Living Space Recommendations For Calves

It’s important to ensure that calves are provided with relief from extreme temperatures. In colder environments, they may require extra bedding in the form of straw, cow-safe heaters, or blankets if necessary, until they’ve developed a more robust coat and extra insulating body fat. In hot environments, it’s important to give them ample opportunities to avoid overheating, including employing gentle misting fans (making sure not to get their environment too moist) and giving them ample shade if they desire it. You may also want to provide both an indoor and outdoor living spaces away from other cows and large sanctuary mammals (other than their mother if she’s present) to keep them safe until they grow a little bigger and stronger, and until their immune system grows more robust. Once they can graze on pasture or hay exclusively, they’ll usually be ready to handle being with other cows. At around a year old (or at the recommended age according to your veterinarian), a calf should have a rumen magnet placed within them to protect them from hardware disease.

Social Recommendations For Calves

Calves should be given space away from mature cows (except for their mother if she’s present) until they have matured to a point where they no longer require supplemental feeding. At this point in their development, they’ll be strong and nimble enough to spend time among other grazing cows and will have the ability to safely get away from others if confronted or bullied. When you first introduce a much younger cow to the existing herd, make sure to watch over initial interactions to ensure everyone is playing safe. It’s unlikely for there to be any problems, but every cow has their own personality and some might be more rambunctious or hesitant to bond than others. Older cows will teach a younger one how to appropriately play and establish boundaries. If you are caring for multiple new calves together, once they are given a clean bill of health from a veterinarian, they will typically make for very close lifelong companions with few attitude problems!

If one of the cows in the herd has their horns, ensure that they are acting safely around the calf, as some individual horned cows have been known to have less horn spatial awareness than others!

Training Is Important Too!

While you are spending time socializing with a younger cow, make sure to establish healthy physical boundaries early on, utilizing a spray water bottle if necessary if a younger cow gets too physical or excited around humans. Although it can be very enjoyable and gratifying to interact with a calf as you may with a friendly dog, when calves grow up after being raised by humans, some individuals have a hard time understanding the physics of a fully grown cow playing with or jumping on a friendly caregiver, and a human-raised calf won’t understand that you are not a cow. This has caused numerous accidental injuries in sanctuary environments; ultimately a few spritzes of water is highly preferable to a huge friend accidentally knocking over a volunteer or visitor!

Common Calf Health Challenges

While not an exhaustive list of the potential health challenges a calf could face, below are the most common issues that affect calves.

Calves with FTP, especially those born into dirty environments and who do not receive proper navel (umbilical) treatment, are especially prone to navel infection, referred to as navel ill or Omphalitis.  In newborns, the umbilicus, or navel, is open and can allow bacteria to enter. The umbilical cord serves as a connection between the calf and mother for the transfer of nutrients and after being born this membrane is torn and should dry up and close within a few days of birth.  Calves with navel ill may have hot, swollen, painful navels, there may be discharge present, and the calf may appear very dull with little interest in eating. Maggots can also develop in this region if there is an infection present. This is generally noted about 2-5 days after birth.  Left untreated, the infection can spread resulting in other issues such as peritonitis, joint ill (described below), or septicemia. Calves with suspected navel ill should be assessed by a veterinarian immediately and will require systemic antibiotic treatment, possibly intravenously. In some cases surgical intervention is also necessary.  Be sure to keep calf living spaces clean and dry, monitor their navel twice daily, and follow the instructions listed above regarding proper navel care and rectal temperature monitoring.

Joint Ill

If bacteria travels to the joints, this will cause an infection in the joint called joint ill or infectious arthritis.  This can develop as a result of untreated navel ill, or the bacteria can travel to the joints as a result of an infection in other parts of the body.  Calves with joint ill may have a hot, swollen, and painful joint, and they may be reluctant to stand or bear weight on the affected leg. It can affect one or multiple joints at the same time.  As noted above, if a calf develops even a slight limp in their step, you should have them evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if the cause is an infection or injury. Calves with joint ill can face lifelong mobility challenges- early treatment is imperative.  This is why we recommend monitoring a calf’s joints (fetlocks, knees, and hocks are most commonly affected, but any joint can develop an infection). Calves with joint ill will require systemic antibiotics and pain management. In some cases the joint will need to be flushed or the placement of antibiotic beads may be recommended.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a respiratory disease caused by inflammation in the lungs. Calves can develop pneumonia from a variety of causes including environmental factors (high humidity, poor ventilation, and/ or being exposed to cold temperatures) and aspiration (often from inhaling milk from a nipple that flows too quickly).  It can also be caused by a variety of organisms including bacterial, viral, fungal or a combination of any of those. Calves with FTP are especially vulnerable to developing pneumonia due to a deficient immune system.  Signs of pneumonia may include fever, coughing, nasal or ocular discharge, labored breathing, gurgly or wet sounding breathing, a dull appearance, lethargy, and a poor appetite.  If the calf is suffering from a chronic pneumonia you may only see a mild version of these signs; they generally have nasal discharge with a slight increase in their respiratory rate.  Calves displaying signs of pneumonia should be assessed by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend an antibiotic treatment and based on the severity may recommend other treatments or diagnostics (including blood work and an ultrasound of their lungs).  Without proper treatment calves can die from pneumonia, and those who recover can suffer from permanent damage to their lungs. Prevention is the key to keep pneumonia at bay. Vaccinations of the mom (if possible) and calf is very important as is maintaining a healthy environment for the calf. There are a variety of vaccinations available for preventing pneumonia- contact your veterinarian to determine which is best for your sanctuary and region.

Scours

Scours is another name for diarrhea in ruminants, which could originate from a number of different infectious and non-infectious sources. Viruses, bacteria and protozoa can all act alone or together to cause scours.  The calf’s diet can also be a contributing factor. While cows of any age can develop diarrhea for a variety of reasons, most calf scours occurs during their first month of life.  If left untreated, calves with scours can quickly become dehydrated. In young calves it is this dehydration, not the organism that caused the scours, that is the most common cause of death. We strongly recommend a calf with scours is seen by a veterinarian, but if you are experienced in how to conduct a physical examination on a calf and know how to determine their level of hydration, you may choose to closely monitor the calf at first. If you are not familiar with how to assess a calf’s hydration status, you should have your veterinarian show you how to do so through skin tenting and assessing if a calf has sunken eyes.  By being able to provide this information to your veterinarian, they will be able to determine if you can manage the calf’s care on your own or if more advanced interventions are necessary. It is imperative you involve a veterinarian if the calf is showing signs of dehydration or has had scours for more than a few days.  They can help determine the underlying cause, establish an appropriate treatment plan, and provide supportive care as needed.  While it is sometimes possible to determine the cause of the scours by considering the age of the calf and the appearance of the diarrhea, your veterinarian may recommend fecal diagnostic testing to determine the cause and best course of action.  We will discuss some of the more common infectious causes of scours below. In most cases, treatment consists primarily of supportive care rather than treatment of the underlying cause (either because there is no treatment or because treatment is only advised in severe cases). To address their dehydration, the calf will need electrolytes designed for calves which can be in addition to their milk, or in place of some of their milk.  Some electrolytes can hinder the absorption of milk given; therefore, your veterinarian should help determine the best treatment plan.  They may also recommend adding lactaid tabs to their milk.  If the calf is too weak to accept fluids orally, they may require intravenous or subcutaneous administration, performed by a qualified veterinarian or expert. Ensure that the calf is kept warm, dry, and quarantined during recovery and continue to practice good biosecurity habits to protect the rest of the herd. If the scours source is CryptosporidiumGiardia, or other zoonotic disease, you must take all appropriate measures to ensure that no human is exposed directly to their fecal matter. These are highly contagious to humans and can be life threatening to young humans. Do not let a calf with scours interact with the public.  It is imperative that everyone working with or around a calf who has scours wears gloves and avoid letting any part of the calf make contact with a human’s face (we know calves are extremely kissable, but for everyone’s safety, you really must avoid directly kissing a calf with scours).

There are many calf scour scoring charts online that can help you determine the cause of the diarrhea.  The following are some of the most common infectious agents that are responsible for scours.  You can check out examples of the diarrhea caused by each of these agents here.  Please note, this is not a sanctuary resource and discusses calves in terms of financial gain/ loss.

Rotavirus/ Coronavirus

These are the most common viruses that can cause diarrhea in calves.  Though they can cause diarrhea at any time within the calf’s first month of life, they are most commonly found between 3-21 days of age.  These viruses will cause the calf to lose the ability to absorb the milk and nutrients they are drinking. Their feces will have a watery appearance with a color variation from brown to green.  It may contain mucus and blood because of the damage to the intestinal lining. Treatment consists of replacing lost electrolytes. Antibiotics are only used in cases where the calf doesn’t respond to fluid therapy and address any secondary bacterial infection. 

Escherichia Coli (E. coli)

Diarrhea caused by E.coli typically occurs during a calf’s first week of life.  Like rotavirus and coronavirus, the K99 strain of E.Coli can cause severe damage to the intestinal tract lining.  This is because the bacteria releases a toxin that will damage the intestinal lining. Calves become resistant to the effects of this toxin after they reach one week old.  E. coli can spread through the gut into the bloodstream resulting in infections in other parts of the body. Scours caused by E. coli is typically described as an effortless passing of white to yellow feces (think of water shooting out of a hose). Treatment consists of providing electrolytes and may include antimicrobial therapy and vaccinations. 

Cryptosporidium (“Crypto”)

Cryptosporidium is a protozoal organism and generally affects calves between 7-21 days of age.   This is a zoonotic disease and easily transmits to humans, especially people who have not spent much time around farmed animals in their life.  Calves with cryptosporidium have moderate to heavy diarrhea that persists for several days regardless of treatment. Feces are pale or yellow, watery, and contain mucus.  The diarrhea generally is self limiting without treatment and will resolve after several days. Death from dehydration does not normally occur; however, it is still important to monitor the calf’s hydration status each day.  Maintaining clean and dry living spaces and having robust quarantine protocols are important to help prevent an outbreak of cryptosporidium.

Salmonella

Like E. coli, this is another bacteria that not only can cause diarrhea but can spread beyond the gastrointestinal system and can cause infections in other parts of the body.  Salmonella generally occurs in calves who are 10 days or older. Calves with salmonella will have blood in their diarrhea or a rusty looking color to their feces. Diarrhea caused by salmonella will have a  very foul odor (even more pungent than regular calf diarrhea!) Treatment is focused on replenishing lost electrolytes through fluid therapy and potentially antimicrobial medications. Since the bacteria can enter the bloodstream, it is important to monitor the calf’s temperature and provide an anti-inflammatory if they have a fever.  Prevention is focused on maintaining a clean environment and keeping strict hygiene practices that keep food and water bowls and anything else the calf licks clean.

Contracted Tendons

Calves are sometimes born with varying degrees of contracted tendons. This is the most common musculoskeletal abnormality in calves, typically affecting their front legs and the tendons and muscles involved in flexing the joints.  In mild cases the calf may appear to walk on their tip toes with only a mild bend in their fetlock or carpal. Mild cases can often resolve overtime simply by giving the calf time to walk and exercise, but you should consult with your veterinarian to see if further intervention is recommended. If the calf is young enough your veterinarian may give them an injection of oxytetracycline to help relax the flexor muscles. In more severe cases the calf may actually walk on the top of their hooves because the carpus and fetlock joints are so bent- this is often referred to as “knuckling.”  While many online sources may recommend you split the calf’s legs, you should always have the calf evaluated by a veterinarian first and should discuss whether splinting is warranted and also learn exactly how to do it.  Improper splinting can result in a more severe issue than the contracted tendons you were trying to address, such as infections and permanent damage of the joints.  In cases of extreme contracture, surgical intervention may be recommended.

Growing Up

At around one year old, calves (especially males) enter a phase for one to two years where they are inclined to express dominance and independence. Calves who used to be docile and cuddly can become quite aloof, prone to mounting behavior, or even quite hostile to previously beloved caregivers. Do not take this personally as this is part of their growing up process, but always keep this in mind when raising a calf, especially in the absence of other cows!

Calf Milk Volume Calculators

To help calculate the volume of milk you might need to feed calves per meal, we’ve developed a calculator (both in pounds and kilograms) for your use!

 

  • Calf Milk Volume Calculator (In lb)
  • Calf Milk Volume Calculator (In kg)

SOURCES:

Cattle Care | Farm Sanctuary

Tendon Issues Of Newborn Calves | Dottie Love

Calves Need Colostrum To Survive | Farm & Dairy (Non-Compassionate Source)

Growth Factors And Antimicrobial Factors Of Bovine Colostrum | International Dairy Journal (Non-Compassionate Source)

Calf Scours Signs, Treatment, & Prevention | Michigan State University (Non-Compassionate Source)

Tricks Getting A Calf To Drink From A Bottle | Moms (Non-Compassionate Source)

When To Wean A Bottle Fed Calf | Moms (Non-Compassionate Source)

Instructions For Raising Bottle Calves | Mother Earth (Non-Compassionate Source)

Navel Ill (Omphalitis/Omphaloplebitis) | NADIS (Non-Compassionate Source)

Calf Pneumonia | The Cattle Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

Neonatal Calf Diarrhea | Zoetis (Non-Compassionate Source)

Tendon Troubles In Newborn Calves Require Quick Attention | Dovers (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on January 27, 2021

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