Calf Health


Source: National Farm Animal Care Council Code of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals – Dairy Cattle, Section 5.5

Calf management in the first days and weeks after birth is integral to setting calves up for success (75). In any calf rearing stage, prompt intervention upon the earliest signs of poor vitality or illness greatly improves calf survival, treatment success, and later productivity (22, 31).

All calves, but especially those born from a dystocia, benefit from attentive care. Calves born from a dystocia are at increased risk of mortality (in the perinatal and later stages) and later health issues (e.g., respiratory disease and diarrhea) (31).

Dipping of calf navels shortly after birth has not been proven to reduce the incidence of navel infection. It can, however, promote drying of the cord and kill any bacteria already present on the surface. If navel dipping is performed, ensure that a clean, 7–10% tincture of iodine is used. Using contaminated solutions or those with additional ingredients such as emollients are detrimental to navel healing.

Fluid therapy (i.e., replacement of lost water and electrolytes) greatly improves outcomes for scouring calves (24). In addition, continuing to offer normal amounts of milk/milk replacer to scouring calves does not prolong or worsen diarrhea and it prevents weight loss, provides the nutrients necessary for intestinal healing, and supports overall recovery (24, 76). However, feeding milk/milk replacer via tube to sick calves that are not drinking is not recommended as it brings serious health risks.

The threshold for mortality in the Requirement below is informed by research on female calves. While the Requirement focuses on female calves, corrective actions would apply to, and benefit, all calves—male and female.

Refer also to Appendix D – Calf Health Scoring Chart and Criteria.


If mortality in female calves from 2 days of age exceeds 10%, corrective actions must be implemented to improve calving management and calf health in consultation with a veterinarian or other qualified advisor (77).


  1. consult a veterinarian on calf health management as part of routine farm visits (75, 78)
  2. aim to keep all calf mortality below 6% (77)
  3. wherever feasible, designate specific personnel to specialize in calf care
  4. monitor calf body temperature for 2 weeks following birth (normal range is 38.5–39.5°C [101.3–103.1°F])
  5. monitor drinking speed and milk intake in young calves (reductions in these are often an early indicator of illness)
  6. upon the earliest signs of diarrhea, provide fluids (in addition to milk/milk replacer) to replace lost water and electrolytes and promote calf survival (24)

Key strategies for newborn calves:

  1. assess calf vitality as soon as possible after birth (ideally within the first hour) so that timely assistance can be provided if needed (31)
  2. provide additional care or supportive therapy to twins, calves with poor vitality, and those born from a dystocia (e.g., electrolytes, additional colostrum feedings, dry the hair coat and provide additional thermal support)
  3. consider, in consultation with the herd veterinarian, providing an NSAID to calves born from a dystocia (this therapy reduces pain from the delivery and may improve other welfare outcomes) (4).