Watching Cattle for Sickness

Steve Boyles, OSU Extension Beef Specialist

Make sure you have plenty of time to watch cattle. One of the best times to watch cattle for illness is feeding time. Appetite depression can indicate illnesses like pneumonia. This is best done during the cooler times of the day if there is hot weather. Working sick cattle in hot weather is stressful.

Strive for 25-50-25

  • 25% in pen at bunk ready to eat
  • 50% coming to the bunk (stimulated by feed wagon)
  • 25% milling around not ready to eat

Look carefully at those calves that are slow to come to the bunk to eat. Therefore one of the best times to look for sick cattle is when you put feed out. If you are not able to observe cattle while they are eating, look at the fill on the cattle. This can be an indication of if they have eaten.

Feed consumption can drop before there is a rise in body temperature. Therefore, carefully watching consumption can get you ahead on most cases of typical respiratory infections in weaned calves. The best time to spot and sort sick cattle away from healthy cattle is after they have just been fed.

In addition to coming to the bunk more slowly, sick cattle will be a little depressed and hold their head lower than normal. They will be less attentive and curious than healthy cattle. Since they are not eating, their abdomen my bounce more than healthy cattle. Listen to their breathing. Sick cattle may have a higher than normal respiration rate.

Sick cattle will often have watery, dull eyes, a nasal discharge and will not be cleaning their noses as often as normal cattle. Their movement will be a little stiff and weakness will cause them to shorten their stride and drag their toes/knuckles slightly. You may notice their tails are tucked slightly between their hocks.

Wild cattle will try to hide their sickness levels so they may not have lowered heads, dull eyes in your presences. If you think about it, in nature you do not want to look sick around predators trying to eat you. You almost have to peek around the barn to spot the wild calf being sick.