Sick Calves

Calves are tender creatures and whether nursing on the mom or being fed by humans, calves may succumb to a number of illnesses. This is one reason to focus on only purchasing healthy animals from healthy herds – save yourself the heartache of bringing diseases onto your farm and your calf-raising will be much easier.

In cases where a calf has a high fever, is lethargic/dull eyed/unable to stand, or other serious symptoms, consider contacting your vet for immediate treatment.


Likely the most common “sickness” among calves, there are many different types of calf scours.

Initially, consider the possibility of “milk scours” which is NOT a disease but rather a symptom of rich milk feeding.

I would initially treat all calves with the natural methods below (electrolytes and supplements) before considering more drastic measures.


In my experience, milk scours from too-rich milk are usually gray or white and runny, maybe even liquidy. I’ve seen it stay manure color and just be liquid, but that’s less common. I have seen blood streaks, but that’s less common as well. In all cases, Whew! is it STINKY!! :) The calf is usually acting 100% normal, but sometimes they will kick at their belly or hunch when going to the bathroom (it can be acidy).

If the calf is happy, nursing, active, alert, then I proceed as normal, but with either skimmed milk or watered-down milk. Skimmed is nice because you’re getting everything except that excess cream, whereas watered down milk is just…watered down, still proportionally a lot of cream. But both methods should work to relieve the scours. Literally within a feeding or two, the manure should be significantly better and the calf should be back to normal in approx 48 hours.

If I don’t catch it right away, the following can be added to the milk to supplement/improve digestion for a few feedings:

  • The following recipes imply a “regular” calf feeding from a half gallon sized calf bottle
  • SLIPPERY ELM: Three capsules or 1 Tbsp. included in milk or hand-fed just before feeding milk. Slippery Elm works to soothe the mucous membranes of the intestinal tract, improving absorption of fluids. Dehydration is often the most dangerous symptom of scours in calves.
  • Natural calf rennet Bioren 100ml bottle from dowricks.comRENNET: Add to milk abt. 1/2 tsp. liquid calf rennet to the milk feeding – feed immediately (other rennets will work as well, follow package dosage for what you would use to make a 1 gal. batch of cheese.) Alternately, use a syringe to squirt 1/2 tsp. rennet, diluted in several cc warm water, in the back of the mouth of the calf just before feeding milk. If you wait too long to feed the renneted milk, the milk will coagulate and not come out the bottle. 🙂 This illustrates the reason for using rennet – it helps solidify the milk to slow digestion and temporarily aid in slowing diarrhea.
  • PROBIOTICS: Can add recommended package dosage to the bottle of milk before feeding. This is an essential addition if feeding milk replacers or questionable milk or if the calf is sick. Fresh, healthy raw milk should have sufficient enzymes for the calf to be able to digest but any processed milks would benefit from the addition of probiotic. A less potent probiotic brand is Probios – commonly found at feed stores. Keep in fridge or freezer.
  • Resorb - ElectrolyteELECTROLYTES: Feed regular or skimmed/light milk feeding in AM and PM with a mid-day feeding of electrolytes (half to full bottle of water with % powdered electrolytes added as directed in package. Resorb is a great “calf-specific” brand, but there are also other “multi-species” brands available.) Electrolytes help balance the inner workings of a calf’s digestion (similar as for humans) and helps with hydration while the calf is improving in health.


Common types of scours include e-coli, salmonella, crypto, BVD, and more. The best way to identify your calf’s scours, if it’s not as simple as milk scours, is to ask others (Your vet, Keeping a Family Cow forum, your neighboring cattle farmers/ranchers, online symptom searches.)

Continue with the natural treatments listed above – they can be used alongside other treatments (antibiotics, etc.) and can improve speed of recovery.

Read more here:


If your calf gets to the point you think antibiotics are necessary, contact your vet (at least for a recommendation on which product to use and how much.) well-known antibiotic tablet for young cattle is Sustain III, but should not be used for calves under 30 days old and has restrictions for calves fed on an all-milk diet. Please read directions thoroughly before administering medicines to calves.

Remember, do your part to prevent antibiotic resistance! Try safer alternatives first!


Navel ill occurs when a newborn calf’s umbilical cord is exposed to pathogens that travel up the cord into the navel area. Navel ill can be prevented by dipping every newborn calf with 7% Iodine tincture (undiluted) asap after birth.

I have not personally experienced a calf with this problem, but it is quite prevalent and very dangerous to the calf’s health and longevity.

Read more here:


Pneumonia in calves is extremely serious for many reasons. Cattle have small lungs in relation to the size of their body – so cows of any age are susceptible to lung illnesses and the impact can be dramatic in cattle. If a calf fights pneumonia, the effects can last for a lifetime – inhibiting general health for the rest of the animal’s life, reducing their productive lifespan.

PREVENT pneumonia:

  • Ventilation allows for cross-flow of fresh air – this is important year-round!
  • Colostrum – proper antibodies at birth help prevent issues down the road. Read more here:
  • Vaccinations: If pneumonia is becoming a frequent problem on your farm, consider working with a vet to diagnose and test for possible related diseases and corresponding vaccines that may help prevent future infections.

In the few cases of pneumonia I have been around, the calf may survive, but the long-lasting effects tend to show back up during times of stress, ie: calving.

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