A calf at Margaret Riungu's dairy farm in Meru. [Olivia Murithi, Standard]

Dear Daktari, I am a retired civil servant who is now a full-time dairy farmer here in Webuye town. Last month, I lost a very good calf, and the only thing I observed before its death was diarrhoea. I did not think this could easily kill my cow until a veterinary doctor confirmed that my calf most probably died from diarrhoea. I know many other fellow farmers out there may not know that diarrhea can indeed be fatal in a calf. The veterinary doctor was very supportive in helping me prevent such incidences through a number of husbandry practices. I just thought this was something worth sharing.

Antony Wafula, Webuye.

Thanks so much, Antony, for reading the Smart Harvest and, most importantly, for also taking time to write back and share your experience for the sake of other farmers. It is true that without any sensitization, many farmers may not take calf diarrhoea, or calf scours as it is medically known, seriously.

Diarrhoea is a fatal condition that can easily cause death, especially in young fragile calves, as it denies the body the electrolytes required to keep the biological system functioning optimally. This deficiency is what makes diarrhea a killer condition, even in adult animals. Diarrhoea is the major cause of death in calves below one month of age.

Diarrhoea in calves is a complex condition that has a multiplicity of causes, among them infections, most of them co-infections by bacteria, fungus, or viruses. The most common micro-organisms that cause calf scours are Salmonella, Clostridium, E. Coli, Bovine Rotavirus, and Bovine Viral Diarrhoea Virus. Farm practices that result in milk or feed contamination or any form of stress will predispose a calf to disease conditions that result in diarrhoea. Stress can result from some practices farmers can so easily overlook, for example, inconsistency in milk feeding, cold environment, or cold milk. Stress could also influence the severity of an already existing diarrhoea.

Diarrhoea is very common in calves that did not get a fair share of colostrum – both quantity and at the right time when the gut still has the capacity to absorb the antibodies present in the calf’s first meal on earth. This multifactorial nature of diarrhoea in calves indeed makes it a bit of a challenge to manage.

As earlier noted, this condition remains common in many farms because of several reasons. One is the farmers’ apathy towards the condition, their inability to quickly observe that the lack of appetite, the dirty hide quarters, the inactivity is as a result of diarrhoea. This subsequently leads to late intervention or results in the death of the calf before it is treated.

The good news, however, is that this condition can be treated, controlled, and prevented. Timely intervention is of critical importance, as the lost electrolytes need to be urgently replenished, and the microbial infections treated appropriately. To boost the immunity of the calf, ensure the calf gets enough colostrum.

Hygiene is very important when handling calves, where bucket or bottle feeding is used, ensure that the farmhand is clean and so are the feeding equipment. Contaminated milk is the major source of micro-organisms entry into the fragile calf body system. Also, minimize any form of stress to the calf, make the calf pen very comfortable, warm, and not on the way of the wind. In conclusion, be close to your calf, talk to your calf, and be quick to observe any signs of diarrhoea and quickly call the vet.

[Dr Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and head of communications at FAO-Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO but his own]

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