Injuries in Dairy Calves - Prevention and Treatment

Published on Tue, 04/18/2023 - 12:01pm

Injuries in Dairy Calves - Prevention and Treatment.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Young calves occasionally suffer injuries, but some of these can be prevented with changes in management.  Jessica McArt, DVM, PhD, DABVP (Dairy Practice) is a veterinarian in the Ambulatory & Production Medicine Clinic at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.  “I take fourth year vet students out to various farms, which are mostly dairy farms, to teach them how to be dairy veterinarians,” she says.

“Here in central New York farms range in size from 40-cow tie-stall dairies to 5000-cow free-stall dairies with group housing, and we also work with people who have pet cows or a family milk cow.” Her students get to see a wide spectrum of management systems in the dairy industry.

“One of the most common calf injuries is limb injuries.  These might be from calves being pulled during a dystocia, or calves getting their legs caught in facilities and the enclosures they live in.  Fractures in young calves are not uncommon,” she says.

“We sometimes see hind limb injuries resulting from intramuscular injections that have been given improperly.  This is not the recommended site for injections. In older calves or heifers we also see broken legs, dislocated hips, abrasions or lacerations (from slipping, falling, hitting the ground hard).  Even if the leg isn’t broken or dislocated, sometimes these injuries become infected in trauma types of injuries,” says McArt.
Part of prevention would be making sure calves are pulled properly, not putting too much stress on limbs and joints, and housing calves in safe facilities.  “It’s important to have regular training for employees who are working in maternity areas or for dairy clients, teaching them how to pull calves, and how much traction can be safely used, how to place chains, etc.” says McArt.

Dr. Taika von Konigslow (Assistant Professor in Ambulatory & Production Medicine at Cornell University) says the earliest injuries are generally suffered during calving—when calves are being pulled and too much force is placed on the limbs.  “Calving injuries can include broken bones, or what we call a joint luxation, when a bone is pulled out of place.  I recommend having a conversation with your veterinarian to discuss proper ways to pull calves.  You can set up a meeting for personal or staff training on how to place chains during an assisted birth,” she says.

“Sometimes accidents happen, but there are things we can do to reduce the risks.  A discussion with your vet is also an opportunity to not only talk about calf injuries but also to talk about other things relating to calving such as calf resuscitation, calf care, and management after birth.”  

When pulling a calf, it’s important to place the chain or strap as far up on the legs as possible, to distribute the pressure.  With chains you can create a double half-hitch with one loop above the fetlock joint and one below.  Never put just one loop above the hoof or you may injure the joint, bone, or pull off the hoof capsule.

“A half hitch is much better because it distributes pulling pressure along multiple locations.  Your veterinarian can demonstrate the best placement of chains and how to work with cows when they are calving (don’t pull when the cow is not actively straining, etc.)—and this can help prevent the traumatic injuries that happen during birth,” says von Konigslow.

Safe facilities is a huge issue.  “It’s important to have an appropriate facility for the size of the calves, with adequate room,” says McArt.  Safe, calm handling of calves is also crucial—using optimal techniques for moving them, so they are not stressed and running around.  

“Heifers always tend to be a little flighty, but the more calmly we can move them and the more comfortable they are with us, the less likely we are to have injuries associated with handling them,” McArt says.

Housing injuries might necessitate some changes and repairs so calves can’t get their heads or legs stuck.  “These situations may result not only in fractures and luxations, but also punctures, cuts and abrasions.  Another thing that can put calves at risk for injury is overcrowding.  We sometimes see calves stepped on accidentally by cows or by other calves if they are playing around, riding each other, etc.  Sometimes accidents can’t be prevented, but we can minimize the chances by making sure animals have enough space. Sometimes cows calve when we aren’t expecting them to.  Frequently walking through close up pens to find these cows or unexpected calves can help prevent injuries.”

Some injuries result in open wounds, but bumps and bruises can also become a problem.  A large hematoma may become a site for infection.  If there are bacteria circulating around the body or otherwise gain access, a large blood-filled bruise can create the perfect conditions for an abscess to form.  

Getting stepped on, or having a cow lie on a calf, is not always preventable.  Sometimes a calf is slow or unable to get up and around, and more vulnerable to being stepped on. “In some cases the calf has a congenital problem and has a lower chance of making it into the herd,” McArt says.

“We generally talk about accidents that happen to healthy calves—such as broken bones, cuts, or getting bumped around—but another way injuries can happen is when you have a sick calf that is weak and lying around, and more susceptible to getting stepped on or injured.”  These calves are not as likely to jump up and get out of the way.  A sick calf is also more at risk for being run over by equipment if the operator doesn’t see it.

“If you have a lot of sick calves, it is worth having a talk with your vet. He/she can help you figure out what you are dealing with as well as with treatment and prevention protocols.”  Ill health can be a contributing factor in some calf accidents and injuries.  The injury may be a secondary problem.  

Sometimes it’s hard to think ahead to prevent problems, but if a person diligently tries to use calm, low-stress handling methods, injuries can be minimized.  “It also helps to work with your veterinarian; we do cow handling training every year for our clients as part of our routine programs.  This, along with another set of eyes can help, especially in terms of facilities and what might be done to improve them,” says McArt.

On some farms, facilities have been set up the same way for as long as the people working there can remember.  People become used to something and may not notice problems.  “I have the luxury of being able to visit many farms and I think it’s great when producer groups can have tours of different farms.  They get to see how other people do things, and can learn a lot from each other.”  It’s a way to get some new ideas.

“One of the best things you can do is have good protocols in place for when farm workers bring equipment into a pen with the animals, which is important not only for preventing calf injuries but also safety for the farm staff,” says von Konigslow.

Treating Injuries
For fractures and wounds it’s always good to have first aid materials on hand to deal with them.  When you call the vet to come deal with a fracture you could put a temporary protective bandage/splint on the limb to keep it from getting worse before the vet arrives.  

If the calf is in a pen with other animals, it should be put into a safe area by itself.  Perhaps you could put some gates together create a temporary pen where you can isolate that calf.  Then the injured calf is out of the way and doesn’t have competition from other animals, and less likely to be jostled around until the vet gets there. “In cold weather you might also put the calf under a heat lamp, depending on your facilities, so you can keep the calf comfortable and confined until the vet can take care of the break or look after a wound,” says von Konigslow.

It’s important to have a good veterinary-client-patient relationship.  “This can help a dairy develop good protocols on identifying problems, and for diagnosis and treatment of injuries,” says McArt.  “Treatment should always include pain management, and depending on what kind of injury it is we may need to deal with infection or risk of infection.  In those situations we use appropriately selected antibiotics and proper dosing.  Following the appropriate withdrawal/withholding times is also important, along with knowing how often to repeat the medication and how to administer it,” says McArt.

“Obviously, the folks who are looking at their heifer calves daily or multiple times a day will notice injuries earlier.  The sooner you can find and treat them, the better the calves will do, with more chance for recovery or a quicker recovery,” she says.

It also helps to be able to assess the injury and determine whether it’s something you can take care of yourself, or need veterinary assistance.  You don’t want to ignore a problem, or treat it inappropriately if it’s something that needed to be taken care of by a professional.

“We don’t like to see broken limbs two weeks after the injury occurred.  Fractures in a young calf heal quickly if they are properly taken care of.  Young animals are amazing at healing, but because of this fact, some people may just think the calf will be fine and don’t give appropriate care,” she says.

“Fractures are often painful, so the faster we can have them heal, and also have pain meds on board, the better the animal welfare will be.”  If the broken bone is out of place, it needs to be put back in proper position and protected with a splint or cast so it won’t become worse—or infected if it comes through the skin.

“With a wound you want to try to keep it clean to prevent contamination,” says von Konigslow.  “If the wound is dirty, clean it with dilute iodine or chlorhexidine soap.  A disinfectant wound spray is another good thing to have on hand, along with vet wrap and tape for a temporary bandage. With any injury, however, it is best to talk to the vet on the phone right away, explain what’s going on, and get advice on the proper first aid to administer until they can get there. ” says von Konigslow.

The vet can also give tips on how to temporarily bandage an injury. “You don’t want to wrap an injury so tightly that it cuts off circulation.  You not only need to have first aid materials on hand, but also know how to use them properly.  Sometimes you want pressure, to stop excessive bleeding, but the vet can give advice on how to wrap a wound and how much pressure to apply—so that it’s enough but not too much.”  The vet can help you determine if it’s something you can handle, or need professional assistance.

“In some instances you might also need to treat infection or reduce pain and inflammation.  The veterinarian can advise you.  With a puncture you might need to worry about tetanus; the calf can be given tetanus toxoid (vaccine) or antitoxin.  These are things your veterinarian can help determine, and one reason you should call right away, to get proper advice,” says von Konigslow.

Sometimes injuries are due to freak accidents, but other times there are patterns.  “We might see multiple calves with injection site reactions, if they were vaccinated in the wrong location, for instance.  In this situation we need to do group retraining on proper injection sites and techniques.”  It’s also important to use proper hygiene and cleanliness.

“Depending on the size of the dairy, there are many things that we as veterinarians can do for individual calves ourselves, but for the larger dairies we do a lot of training of personnel.  Many of things that need to be done can have protocols developed for farm employees to follow.  Once in a while we do see some strange cases; it’s important even for well-trained farm employees, when they have a case that looks different or isn’t responding to treatment, to give us a call,” says von Konigslow.

Cattle, especially calves, are good at getting into trouble and doing unusual things.  “This keeps the job interesting!”

Weaned Calves
Groups of weaned heifers don’t get as much attention after they are well vaccinated, up until pre-breeding time.  “This is a time those heifers are usually farther away,” says McArt.  People are still feeding them, but these older calves are not monitored as closely.  They may get injured and no one notices the problem for a while.  It’s important that heifers are checked on every day, making sure they are doing well.”  They are not little babies anymore, but still vulnerable to various injuries and problems.

When you do find the injured animal, you need a good protocol for handling the injury. With an older calf it is important to know how to move it safely and humanely to an area where it can receive care and treatment, and recover.

“In the weaned group, we need to talk about vaccine protocols to prevent infections that can occur after a traumatic injury, such as tetanus,” says von Konigslow. “Your vet can help with those decisions (what to give, and when),” she says.

Good facilities are important for weanlings. Overcrowding can sometimes be a problem in weaned calves, leading to injuries.  “Calves should be disbudded at a young age.  Horns can be an issue when they are playing and fighting, and if they are putting their heads into a feeder, they could get stuck.  Dehorning is best, not only for human safety but also for animal safety,” says von Konigslow.