Most good livestock managers are also good observers. “Being able to accurately pull calves in need of examination or treatment is difficult, but it is essential in order to treat sick cattle while not spending money unnecessarily or adding stress to healthy cattle,” says Justin Rhinehart, beef cattle specialist with the University of Mississippi.

Rhinehart recently compiled some tips for identifying sick calves and says that the most widely used methods are either a rectal temperature or visual appraisal.

When visually appraising calves, a sure sign that they are suffering from illness is a poor appetite. However, unless you feed on a daily basis, it can sometimes be challenging to assess animal health in this manner. If calves are grazing or using self feeders, Rhinehart recommends looking at “gut fill” as another way to gauge health. “Cattle that have not been eating or drinking properly will appear gaunt and their abdomen will appear to bounce when they walk,” he says.

A depressed appearance, including drooping head and ears, excessively slow movement, lagging behind the rest of the herd and reluctance to move when approached are also signs of illness that a good livestock manager should be able to identify.

If you use temperature as an indicator of illness, Rhinehart recommends keeping the following things in mind:

  • As a rule of thumb, designate cattle with rectal temperatures of 104° F or greater as sick.
  • Early detection of elevated body temperatures and rapid recognition of clinical signs are important for effective treatment of sick cattle.
  • Know what is “normal.” In other words, keep in mind that normal temperatures for cattle will rise during the day.
  • Fevers are more accurately identified when body temperatures are at their daily lows — typically before mid-morning.
  • Minimize stress, including having calves in holding pens for too long (more than 20 minutes) prior to recording temperatures.