Preventing calf illness starts with good herd management

Having a plan in place for a sheltered, dry place for cows and calves and nutrient management help prevent livestock diseases, say North Dakota State University Extension Service livestock experts.

A man wearing a dark suit and tie and white shirt.
Dr. Gerald Stokka is North Dakota State University Extension livestock veterinarian.
Contributed / North Dakota State University

April brings with it the memories of spring 2022 when storms dumped heavy, wet snow that caused livestock losses in the northern Plains.

Meanwhile, below average temperatures, wind and deep snow — in some places record amounts — during March already have caused calving troubles for some farmers and ranchers.

Although there's nothing cattle and sheep producers can do to change the weather, they can control some things that will help them and their livestock get through it with minimum losses.

Having a plan in place for a sheltered, dry place for cows and calves, nutrient management and preventative medicine are among the ways that cattle producers can prepare, say North Dakota State University Extension Service livestock experts.

While the goal of all livestock producers is to produce a live calf, sometimes their focus is more on the products used to treat illnesses instead of on prevention, said Dr. Gerald Stokka , NDSU Extension veterinarian.


“I just want people not to think about the product so much, but to think about their whole system,” he said.

Ensuring that the cows get good nutrition during their pregnancy so they deliver calves that are strong and healthy is one way to help prevent livestock diseases, Stokka said.

Pregnant cows and ewes should get not only adequate protein, but also feed that is a source of energy, said Lisa Pederson, livestock specialist at NDSU Central Grasslands Region Extension Center in Streeter.

The energy will help livestock stay warm in the unseasonably cold temperatures of March and early April. Lows in the double digits below zero were forecast during the last week of March when calving at some ranches was getting into full swing. Meanwhile, wind and snow add to the stress on cattle, making them feel colder.

Besides nutrition, other ways that ranchers and farmers can reduce illnesses in their herds is to look at their management systems and make changes if needed.

For example, instead of relying on a vaccination to prevent calf scours, farmers and ranchers should consider whether they could prevent scours by moving their calving dates to months that typically are drier, Stokka said.

Other ways to prevent calf scours include not crowding together cows and calves so they spread the disease to one another. If there is outdoor protection and a dry place for the herd to stand and lie down, that’s preferable to being in close proximity indoors, he said.

If calves are due to be born when the forecast is for cold temperatures and snow, livestock producers should put the cows in an area that is sheltered from the wind and separate from the rest of the herd, Stokka said.


Ranchers and farmers also should make sure that the calves get up and nurse from their mothers so they get colostrum, which will help build up their immune systems.

The sooner the calves nurse, the better, Pederson said.

“It’s important for newborns to get high quality colostrum within 6 to 12 hours of birth,” she said. If livestock producers aren’t sure whether the calves have nursed they should give them a colostrum replacement, she said.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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