Back to basics – through the master's eye

19 May 2018

You are continuously trying to improve all the processes on your farm, including the performance of your livestock. You discuss with your vet whether your calves are as healthy as they can be, whether you should vaccinate cows against Rotavirus and Coronavirus in their dry period, or whether you could improve the animals’ housing.

Sometimes, however, it’s good to take a few ‘steps back’ – to go back to the basics and identify and tackle potential problems at an early stage.

Of course, this involves some basic specialist knowledge, like the type your father had: he could see straight away if something was wrong with a calf. He used his master's eye to thoroughly examine the calf.

Every cattle farmer can do this, but sometimes you aren't aware of the origins of this basic knowledge. This basic knowledge is listed below, along with further details.

To recognize a sick calf, you first need to know what a healthy calf should look like and how it should behave.

A healthy calf:

  • is inquisitive and alert
  • has a shiny coat
  • looks clean
  • always wants to drink milk (or more milk)
  • has stable, regular breathing
  • visibly grows every week
  • has healthy bowel movements
  • has a plump belly


The most important factors to take into account are a calf's activity and alertness, the structure and colour of its faeces, its coat, its breathing, and if it is showing signs of pain. If these factors are positive, the calf is generally in good health.

In contrast, a sick calf may show one or more of the following symptoms:

Activity and alertness

  • Lethargic
  • Droopy ears
  • Significant time spent lying down
  • Little or no feed or water intake
  • Separating itself from the group

Structure and colour of faeces

  • Discoloration of faeces
  • Diarrhoea
  • Blood in faeces
  • Mucus in faeces


  • Soiling itself
  • Dull coat
  • Long, upright hairs
  • Scratching behind its ears with its hind legs


  • Irregular breathing
  • ‘Rattling’ in breathing (pulmonary infection)
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing


  • Arched back
  • Head tilt
  • Lameness

These symptoms indicate that a calf is not entirely healthy, while the nature of symptoms will indicate the possible causes of the disease. Symptoms associated with breathing, for example, have a completely different cause from diarrhoea symptoms.

If you can determine the cause based on these symptoms, you can start the appropriate treatment more quickly in order to get the calf back on its feet as soon as possible.

In summary, the most important basic skills in successful calf rearing are the ability to identify what a healthy calf should look like, any changes in normal calf behaviour, and the causes of any problems (based on symptoms), and to start the appropriate treatment as quickly as possible.

If you have mastered these basic skills, you can avoid many problems and will not have to resort as quickly to other measures such as the use of antibiotics and vaccinating cows in their dry period.

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