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Combatting Coccidiosis in Calves

Charlotte Reid BSc BVSc MRCVS

Coccidiosis is a parasite that many farmers will have come across during their time, and can cause considerable issues when it gets into youngstock. Coccidiosis is a costly disease for both Beef and Dairy systems, and appropriate management, diagnosis and treatment is vital to prevent significant economic losses and to maintain the health and welfare of livestock.

The symptoms of coccidiosis are typically diarrhoea, dehydration and potentially death in an acute, clinical case. Calves with a coccidial infection will often strain to pass faeces, and may pass blood and mucous. However, it may manifest more subtly: as reduced daily live weight gain, poor appetite and dullness.

Once a calf has ingested the parasite, it starts to invade and develop in the lining of the intestines, and can completely destroy the cells lining the intestine when oocysts are released. This means recovery is very slow, and calves remain stunted and weak for a considerable time during this period.

There are some key features of the life cycle of coccidiosis which are important to remember when managing the disease:

  • Calves are infected by ingesting coccidial oocysts in feed or water which has been contaminated by the faeces of another calf.
  • Coccidia thrive in warm, wet conditions.
  • Oocysts can survive for up to 2 years in the environment.
  • Oocysts are extremely resistant to detergents and disinfectants.
  • Once infected a calf will continually shed oocysts in their faeces, further contaminating their environment.

It is important to note that periods of stress make calves much more prone to developing clinical disease from cocci. ‘Stress’ can range from management processes such as weaning and turn out, to adverse weather conditions, over-stocking and outbreaks of other diseases. It is therefore important that you are able to predict periods of stress so as these can be managed effectively, providing improved nutrition and preventative healthcare where possible to reduce the risk of infection.

As with any disease, succumbing to infection from coccidiosis is a result of the parasite winning in the battle of ‘immunity vs infection’. Calves are most susceptible when they are less than 8 months old, and if they have not encountered cocci before they will have no immunity.

Key areas to focus prevention coccidiosis are:

Immunity:

Ensuring calves have the best start with good colostrum protocols and management of other diseases. Remember, calf health starts with good transition cow management.

Hygiene: Calves need a clean, dry environment.

  • Regular bedding up with clean, dry straw if inside.
  • Maintain appropriate stocking densities.
  • Feed in troughs, and provide clean drinking water raised off the ground to prevent faecal contamination (ideally calves should be drinking from troughs, not ditches or streams).
  • Fence off any standing water and poached areas if grazing.
  • If housed, manage calves in groups of similar age. Older calves suffering from sub-clinical disease can act as a source of infection for younger calves.
  • Between housed batches of calves ensure thorough cleaning, followed by disinfection. It is important that you use a product that is proven to be effective against cocci eradication such as Interkokask.
  • When making grazing choices remember that cocci can survive on pasture for up to 2 years; where possible graze calves on new leys – this will also help in controlling gut worms.

If good management alone is not able to prevent cocci, due to high pasture burdens or stress events weakening calves’ immune systems, then it may be necessary to provide preventative treatment to the calves to reduce the risk of the disease occurring.

It is vital that any treatment is targeted at the right time to allow the calves some exposure so that they can develop their natural immunity, whilst simultaneously preventing the parasites from reaching sufficient numbers to cause disease.

There are a number of preventative treatment protocols, and if you are concerned about coccidiosis in your calves please speak to your vet about the best course of action, as this will be dependent on your farm, as well as the risk/ stress periods for your herd.

If you would like any additional support or advice in relation to coccidiosis, you can contact the Molecare team on 01392 872934 or by emailing [email protected]

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