Weaning calves is much like sending your kids back to school in the fall. Between completely changing environments, tossing them into a smaller space, switching up their diet and any number of other things, some are bound to get sick regardless of your best efforts to prevent it. When I say sick, I mean anything from Pneumonia, to Pink Eye, to Foot rot, to any number of other ailments, depending on location, weather, soil and other variables. "Sickness" is an all-encompassing term.
People doctor calves in more ways than you count, and for a wide variety of ailments depending on the year, their location, and other things. Some rope and doctor them in a lot or pasture, others bring them in and put them in a chute. Some use horses and others use 4-wheelers or motorcycles. Some sort them off into a separate pen, others don't. Different people, and places, deal with different sicknesses. This is one of those ranch things where there are lots of ways to do the job effectively.
This year ours have been in our corral and a small lot. This increases the odds of them getting sick, because they're in a more confined space and were eating out of feeders, which can increase the spread of sickness. However, having them close also makes it easier to get them on a feed program, simpler to check and doctor them if they do get sick and can allow you get on top of any serious illness really fast. There are trade offs to having them turned out, or in a lot or corral like we did this year.
Before you can doctor any calves, there have to be some that are sick. Obviously everyone would prefer if they didn't get sick, and works really hard to prevent sickness before it starts. There are lots of things ranchers do to prevent sickness, including vaccination programs, adding a mild antibiotic to the water for a select period of time, feeding medicated feed for a period of time, feeding a weaning specific feed or feed additive, and a variety of other feed and management options.
For the most part, these practices are highly effective where I'm from, and we doctor very few calves. But, regardless of our best efforts, there are always a few, and some years a lot, that require additional care. As with most things involving livestock, they get sick at any time of day, and you have to spend a lot of time with them during the days following weaning when they're most likely to get sick. The key is to get on top of any sickness as fast as possible. If you miss the beginning of a wave of illness going through a bunch of calves, it can result in the duration of illness lasting much longer, costs you money in loss of production and medication costs and also increases the risk of calves not fully recovering from an illness, or dieing.
Healthy calves look like the above two photos. They're alert, with their ears up, eyes bright and bellies full. The guy just laying there is chewing his cud, a sure sign of contentment in cattle. There are lots of subtle, and not so subtle, signs of calves that are healthy, or on the verge of getting sick.
You want to look through them carefully, especially if you know you have something going through them. Number 166 looks healthy, alert, full, etc...
But, unfortunately one of the things we had go through our calves this year is Pink Eye.
Even though this guy doesn't feel sick, he needs doctored because of his eye.
Here's another suspect, this time for being sick. This guy is not alert, he's off by himself, and he's not eating when most of the other calves were - all signs of potentially needing doctored.
But, before you just go ahead and doctor every calf that looks like this, it's also important not to over-doctor. You have to spend time with the calves, and watch suspects like this guy. There are some that are obviously sick, and there's no doubt that you better doctor him or he's going to die. Then there are more "suspect" types, which need monitored. Sometimes it's easier to tell the difference, and sometimes you have to go with your gut (which for most ranchers, is based on years of personal experience) and what you feel is best for that particular animal.
Here's what we use to doctor. The artwork is custom. We use this old chute because it's pretty much worn out, and useless for anything but doctoring sick calves. It's also a manual chute, whereas our other one is run on hydraulics. Using this one means we don't have to fire up a pickup every time we want to run a calf in and doctor him, and one person can do the entire process alone if they need to.
We use a broad-spectrum antibiotic, seen here. The brand name of this bottle is Oxymycin, but the general term for this medicine is LA 200. You give calves so many cc's based on body weight. This is a mild medicine that treats a number of common illnesses and is affordable. It's usually a good starting place when doctoring calves. People in some places have to deal with illnesses that require much more aggressive doctoring, but fortunately that's not the case where I live in most instances.
You can give the shot under the skin, and we give multiple shots to spread the medicine out. For Pink Eye, you can also give the shot in the eyelid. But, considering I was doctoring most of these calves alone, I wasn't about to try to mug each one's head and give what would be a very difficult shot at the same time. So, instead of an actual shot, I would fill this little syringe with LA 200, and apply some of it directly to the eye. Pink Eye is extremely susceptible to doctoring, and the direct contact of the LA 200 to the infected area (eye) increases effectiveness. That's why they recommend a shot right at they eye also.
I didn't get a photo of doctoring any calves this year, but here's an example of my aunt giving a shot. She's going to give it in the neck, and you also want to be careful not to break the syringe (the clear part is glass), and waste the vaccine. She was giving a shot to some cows, and that's why it's white. LA 200 is the color and consistency of maple syrup. It's sticky, thick, and some brands burn when you give the shot to the calf. But, it's also fast and long-acting, effective, and a much better alternative to not being doctored.
Then each calf gets a mark with a paint stick, so you can tell he's been doctored after you turn him back out. Sometimes you have to doctor calves multiple times, and you need to know if he's been doctored previously. If you doctor a calf multiple times, you can switch colors each time. This year we used one color (pink) for sick calves, and another (yellow) for those doctored for Pink Eye.
We also write each calf we doctor down, along with the date we gave it a shot, and this year whether it was a sick calf or one with Pink Eye. We keep records of practically everything.
Lots of people just put a mark across the shoulders. I added another on their hip because when they were eating in the feeders, there were times when you couldn't see the shoulders.