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Vet’s Voice: Monitor cattle temperature for health

For the September 25, 2010 edition of Tri-State Livestock News.

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Fall has definitely arrived. The weather sure is cold for September. We keep our furnace set low (55º-65 º) this time of year, and this morning it was running. If it is cold for us, it must be cool for our calves. Hopefully you have already vaccinated your calves to assure as few problems as possible with the stress of weaning.

In spite of our careful preparations we all have a few calf problems after weaning or when moved to larger feedlots. Through the years we have been taught to read our bunks, use low-stress handling procedures, and protocols for visually riding pens and pulling sicks. The only constant sign of illness for the past fifty years has been the calf’s body temperature.

The thermometer is the best way to identify animals fighting infections. The calf’s normal average body temperature is 101.5º F. Healthy calves have a diurnal temperature pattern which means lower temperatures in the morning and higher temperatures in the afternoon. Healthy calves may have 100º temperature in the morning which may climb to 103º in the afternoon. On warm days healthy calves temperatures may rise to 104º.

When an animal becomes infected with a pathogen the body temperature begins to elevate. The temperature continues to rise during the incubation period and soon the calf will begin to show clinical signs of illness. Once the body overcomes the infection the temperature will decline to normal levels.

We routinely recommend pulling only animals showing clinical signs and monitor their temperatures. If about ten percent of the pen is showing signs, we recommend treating the entire pen. When we monitor temperatures on the whole pen we find at least as many calves (10-20 percent) with elevated temperatures that don’t appear to be visually sick. These calves are incubating the disease and early appropriate treatment will assure a quick recovery.

If the calf fails to overcome the disease or if the treatment is inadequate, the calf’s temperature may begin to fall. This temperature will continue to drop and the calf will succumb to the disease.

We perceive better response when treating calves with high temperatures (106º-107º) early in the course of a disease. A calf showing severe clinical signs with a below normal body temperature is a poor risk for treatment. Now we have antibiotics with duration of therapeutic antibiotic levels over several days. We used to treat these animals daily and were able to monitor their temperatures returning to normal levels. Now we treat and give them several days for recovery before retreating.

In the feedlot situation some of our clients monitor temperatures at processing. We recommend an animal with a temperature of 104º be treated when processed. Some lots sort these calves to the sick pen while others note the number and place it in the started pen with the other calves. We prefer these animals be processed in the morning when the calves’ temperatures are lowest. Stress can also elevate temperatures so process these animals quickly and quietly to avoid excitement.

Maintaining normal body temperature is important to calves of all ages. Invest in a small digital thermometer ($7-$10) so you can quantify your animal’s responses to infections. Every time your wife called the doctor because one of the kids was sick, I am sure the first thing she mentioned to the doctor was the child’s temperature. Careful records and a thermometer will allow you to monitor your calves problems and recovery, helping you make better economic decisions in the future.

Fall has definitely arrived. The weather sure is cold for September. We keep our furnace set low (55º-65 º) this time of year, and this morning it was running. If it is cold for us, it must be cool for our calves. Hopefully you have already vaccinated your calves to assure as few problems as possible with the stress of weaning.

In spite of our careful preparations we all have a few calf problems after weaning or when moved to larger feedlots. Through the years we have been taught to read our bunks, use low-stress handling procedures, and protocols for visually riding pens and pulling sicks. The only constant sign of illness for the past fifty years has been the calf’s body temperature.

The thermometer is the best way to identify animals fighting infections. The calf’s normal average body temperature is 101.5º F. Healthy calves have a diurnal temperature pattern which means lower temperatures in the morning and higher temperatures in the afternoon. Healthy calves may have 100º temperature in the morning which may climb to 103º in the afternoon. On warm days healthy calves temperatures may rise to 104º.

When an animal becomes infected with a pathogen the body temperature begins to elevate. The temperature continues to rise during the incubation period and soon the calf will begin to show clinical signs of illness. Once the body overcomes the infection the temperature will decline to normal levels.

We routinely recommend pulling only animals showing clinical signs and monitor their temperatures. If about ten percent of the pen is showing signs, we recommend treating the entire pen. When we monitor temperatures on the whole pen we find at least as many calves (10-20 percent) with elevated temperatures that don’t appear to be visually sick. These calves are incubating the disease and early appropriate treatment will assure a quick recovery.

If the calf fails to overcome the disease or if the treatment is inadequate, the calf’s temperature may begin to fall. This temperature will continue to drop and the calf will succumb to the disease.

We perceive better response when treating calves with high temperatures (106º-107º) early in the course of a disease. A calf showing severe clinical signs with a below normal body temperature is a poor risk for treatment. Now we have antibiotics with duration of therapeutic antibiotic levels over several days. We used to treat these animals daily and were able to monitor their temperatures returning to normal levels. Now we treat and give them several days for recovery before retreating.

In the feedlot situation some of our clients monitor temperatures at processing. We recommend an animal with a temperature of 104º be treated when processed. Some lots sort these calves to the sick pen while others note the number and place it in the started pen with the other calves. We prefer these animals be processed in the morning when the calves’ temperatures are lowest. Stress can also elevate temperatures so process these animals quickly and quietly to avoid excitement.

Maintaining normal body temperature is important to calves of all ages. Invest in a small digital thermometer ($7-$10) so you can quantify your animal’s responses to infections. Every time your wife called the doctor because one of the kids was sick, I am sure the first thing she mentioned to the doctor was the child’s temperature. Careful records and a thermometer will allow you to monitor your calves problems and recovery, helping you make better economic decisions in the future.


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