New Born Calf Problems

The health and management of replacement animals are important components of total herd profitability. The productivity of the herd is often under threat from a range of new born calf problems. New born calves are generally susceptible to a range of diseases, the common ones being diarrhoea and pneumonia. New born calf problems also include weakness at birth as well as deformity in the born structure.  In order to prevent or remedy these challenges, there is need for great care within the first few weeks after birth. Farmers should have adequate knowledge and skill about handling and managing problems in new born calves as the profitability and continuity of their business is heavily reliant on the productiveness of these animals.

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This is the most common of all new born calf problems. Calves are at highest risk from birth up until they are about 1 month of age. Diarrhoea is caused by late feeding of colostrum to the new born calf, overcrowding of calves in pens, dirty environment and damp housing. Poor hygiene and bad feeding practice, particularly abrupt overfeeding with milk are also common causes of diarrhoea. Calves are supposed to feed on colostrum within the first few hours of birth until 24 hours. Failure to do so may cause calf diarrhoea which is often referred to as calf enteritis. Signs include loose faeces, lack of appetite, fever and weakness due to dehydration.  As it develops, the calf tends to be very dull with a cold nose. Eyes appear to retreat into socket and the skin becomes cold and un-elastic. Once calves reach this stage, their chances of survival are low. It is recommended to provide the calf with salt and sugar solution so as to replace the fluid, minerals and energy loss. Good hygiene in the calf house is also a very important control measure. Infected calves should be separated from the healthy herd to prevent spread of the disease.

Calf Pneumonia

New born calf problems also include pneumonia which is also referred to as influenza. Calf pneumonia is a common disease in weaned calved. It is main reason for calf mortality as well as stunted growth. The underlying cause of pneumonia in cows is a poor immune system due to stress and deprived feeding. Symptoms of this type of new born calf problem include high temperatures of about 40.5 to 42oC accompanied by watery discharge from the eyes and nose. The nose discharge becomes thick and contains pass. Severe cases of pneumonia lead to death within 3 days. Provision of colostrum is essential in providing calves with sufficient nutrients for protection against such new born calf problems. Other methods of controlling the outbreak of pneumonia in cows include provision of dry and warm housing systems, proper ventilation to minimise draughts in housing and spacious accommodation so as to avoid overcrowding.

Weak Calf Syndrome

Weak calf syndrome manifests as new born calf that is weak, unable or slow to rise, stand or nurse. Consequentially, the calf dies within 3 days of birth. This syndrome is among various new born calf problems that are experienced yearly by livestock farmers. Although weak calf syndrome often attacks a cow or two, it can be experienced as an outbreak thereby affecting large numbers of calves. It is generally caused by many different factors that include:

  • Bad weather (cold and/or wet) resulting in hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Poor nutrition for cows in late gestation (thin cows)
  • Infection
  • Calf involved in a dystocia (difficult calving)
  • White Muscle Disease (Selenium deficiency)
  • Leptospirosis
  • Trauma to the calf (being stepped on or laid upon)
  • Age of the cow – higher incidence in calves born to heifers and very old cows

Weak calf problems can be controlled by various means. Pregnant cows should be kept warm so as to prevent cold stress. Severely low temperatures have a negative impact on the immune system of cattle. They are therefore easily attacked by infection that can possibly lead to weakness in new born calves. Also, weak calf syndrome has been associated with low energy and protein nutrition in late pregnant cows, hence they should be provided with a well-balanced nutritious feed. In addition, farmers should closely monitor new born calves. Ideally, calves should be able to should get up and nurse within one hour after birth. If this is not occurring, it indicates the calf is weak and may require special care. Make sure to vaccinate at least 4 to 6 weeks before calving for respiratory and clostridial diseases that may cause such types of new born calf problems.


Septicemia is a type of new born calf problem that occurs while the calf is in the uterus, during or immediately after birth. It is basically a systemic infection in which bacteria and toxins get into the bloodstream of the calf and travel throughout the body. Treatment of this infection is quite difficult thus commands a large sum of money. As such, farmers must try to prevent the occurrence of septicemia. Early signs are subtle to detect but they generally include weak animals that are reluctant to stand, swollen joints, diarrhoea, pneumonia and meningitis. They also include cloudy eyes and a large, tender navel may develop. Calves affected while in the uterus are born as acute deaths or with respiratory distress, usually dying soon after. In order to control septicemia, farmers must pay close attention to colostrum management in new born calves. Calves with inadequate colostrum intake or given poor quality colostrum increases of infection. In addition, a sufficient well balanced feed is of the essence as calves are rapidly growing at this stage. Poor nutrition weakens their immune system making them susceptible to septicemia.


Salmonellosis, also known as calf paratyphoid is a bacterial infection that usually targets the gastrointestinal or respiratory tracts. It is prevalent in cows of all ages including new born calves. It is considered among serious new born calf problems. There are more than a thousand types of salmonella that can lead to death if not treated. Symptoms include diarrhoea, increase in temperature and death may occur within 24 hours or less. In chronic form, the affected calf would have pasty dung, and is often unthrifty. Sometimes calves can carry the disease for prolonged periods of time before showing signs. They can therefore spread the diseases leading to an outbreak. In weaned calves, signs can vary a lot and include septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and also kidney infections. Salmonellosis is common in unhygienic, dirty and wet environments. As such, the housing system should be kept dry, clean and avoid calves being in contact with faeces. Vaccination using a live vaccine is recommended. It must be administered to calves as early as a day old. Antibiotics can be used as a treatment measure. If the symptoms persist, a veterinarian should be consulted.