Like in many beef-producing areas, at the edge of the Flint Hills in central Kansas the winter can be brutal to baby calves. Many producers will treat their own calves, but sometimes it’s better to haul sick calves into a clinic that is set up to care for them.

Saving winter calvesJessica Laurin, DVM, Animal Center of Marion County, Marion, Kan., has created such an environment at her mixed practice. The most common illnesses in these newborn or young calves are scours and pneumonia.

The environment and environmental changes are the leading causes of these illnesses. “We’ll get one to two inches of rain followed by an inch of snow,” Laurin explains. “Damp ground with high numbers of cows can lead to increased pathogen loads. Severe weather changes tend to set off problems more commonly than anything else.”

Another contributor is lack of passive transfer, which Laurin says happens more commonly than we realize, and many times is due to adverse weather conditions or events. Poor feed management can also have a negative effect on colostrum quality and poor passive transfer. “I think this winter it will be a larger problem than ever, due to high forage costs which will push producers to skimp to cut costs, especially if they have to buy their feed,” Laurin adds.

It’s not feasible to haul in every sick calf, any many don’t need that level of care. Calves that are standing and able to suck should stay on the farm and be managed there, especially if the producer has adequate facilities to manage them at the farm, Laurin says. “Anything unable to either stand or suck should be brought in for either exam or treatment.” Laurin adds that “As veterinarians we should keep in mind that there are several factors at play and we need to look at each situation. Typically, sick and scouring calves show up after a major weather event.” Also at that time the producer (plus other manpower on the farm) may be pretty busy with feeding, pen scraping, and other things, and neonatal management is not given enough time or resources.

Availability of adequate facilities for managing cow-calf pairs may not be available, either. “Those calves need to come to the clinic,” she says.

One of the great advantages to bringing the calf to the practice is that Laurin’s facilities are temperature controlled at all times. “Farms may have great facilities to heat a calf up for 2 hours, but what about after that? Sick calves are weak, and if the producer does not have a place to confine the pair, the mother may unintentionally have that calf travel more than it is ready for.”

Laurin’s clinic is also staffed with technicians and others who can regularly monitor and treat calves as needed. “They are able to watch and spend more treatment time on the calves,” she says. “I have one technician who I can pass my calves onto to set up IVs and manage the cases in-house. On the farm, they don’t get as much attention, or the producers have so many other things going on, that they are unable to spend that time working with sick calves.”

What the bill for these calves is going to be is also a known quantity for the producer. Laurin has set up a straight fee for taking in calves for two to four days of IV treatments. “That helps us to sell the service,” she says.

“Calf hospital”
Laurin thought about how to set up the calf hospital for maximum effect. “We have a room with 3' x 5' concrete block stalls, each with their own drain,” she says. “The room is small enough to heat up well, and we have IV hooks set up for hanging bags.”

Saving winter calvesShe also has a technician who is dedicated and trained as the calf care person. “We have a technician who has been trained to set up IVs,” Laurin explains. “Her duties start with setting and suturing the IV catheter into place. We set up a protocol for IV and oral treatments, and she manages the calf on

a daily basis. It helps us to delegate responsibilities, helps pay her salary and also keeps our cost per calf down.”

Standard protocol for these calves on arrival is to take a temperature, heartbeat and lung performance, and then classify if they are suffering from scours or pneumonia. Their percent dehydration is also determined (see article below).

Next, fluids are set up and calves are warmed, using a mineral tub as a “bathtub” to warm calves in. “To warm the fluids, we first set 1- and 5-liter bags in a bowl of hot water in the sink,” Laurin says. “My associate and technician have devised a way to use bottle heaters as IV warmers that work pretty well.”

They also piggyback IV bags to keep them full and flowing. “We will set up a 3-liter or 5-liter bag, then piggyback 1-liter bags onto them to fill them to maintain fluids overnight,” Laurin notes.

Calves are typically kept in the clinic three days, with a range from two to four days. Laurin says calves that stay in the clinic over four days usually have a poor prognosis for recovery. Her practice has had about 10 calves each the last two winters, and she notes that those winters were excessively cold.

Laurin says her clients really like the option of bringing calves in. “We have about 85% treatment success,” she says. “Live calves are worth more, and at least it gets them closer to breakeven on the cow. Usually after the first time they’ve brought one in, if they have problems again they call and bring them in.”

Laurin mentions a presentation given at the winter Academy of Veterinary Consultants meeting by Geof Smith, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, North Carolina State University, about treating for scours. “The presentation on scours treatment showed some of the ill-fated on-the-farm attempts at stalling calves on IVs,” she says. “We don’t have to mess around with that, plus having the calves in the clinic means that there is a large amount of the day that the calf is observed. We can better manage environmental temperatures than in a barn on a beef cattle farm — very few of my clients have heated barns.”

Saving winter calvesIn addition, Laurin’s technician can evaluate fecal consistency, attitude and dehydrating status more frequently and with more information when calves are in stalls in the clinic. “It is also a great feeling to come into the clinic in the morning and hear the hungry bawl of a calf that responded to treatment.”


Treatment on the trailer
There are times when it’s a better decision to bring a sick calf in to see the veterinarian, but the veterinarian may not have a way to keep the calves in-house. Geof Smith, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, North Carolina State University, helped a veterinarian design a haul-in protocol for calves with diarrhea even though he did not have any hospital facilities to board animals.

“Producers were trained to haul calves into the practice in a trailer when they were unable to stand,” Smith says. “The veterinarian or technician would place a catheter, suture it in and hang a 5-liter bag of fluids on the side of the trailer. He would tie the calves feet together using baling twine as a piggin’ string and the calf would lie on the trailer until the fluids were done.”

The producers would haul the calves home and leave them on the trailer. They were trained to pull the catheters themselves when the calf stood up. If for some reason the calf was still weak or had a problem the next day, it could come back to the clinic.

“The veterinarian’s success rate for treating diarrhea cases went up and he quit having to drive all over the state treating calves on-farm,” notes Smith. “This approach may not work for every practitioner but can be used effectively when technicians are well-trained to placed IV catheters.”

Geof Smith, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, North Carolina State University, says the most accurate methods for assessment of dehydration in calves are eyeball recession into the orbit and skin tent duration in the neck region, and that all other methods of assessment are inferior to these two methods (see Bovine Veterinarian, July 2011).

Saving winter calves