Cattle farmers are warned to be on their guard against coccidiosis in their calves this autumn.

Coccidiosis is often an ’invisible’ disease that can have a serious economic impact on calf production. Minimising health challenges to calves during the rearing phase is critical to avoid losses and maximise long-term productivity.

Coccidiosis is caused by tiny, single celled protozoan parasite called Eimeria. Cases of coccidiosis are common in autumn-born calves, but often go unnoticed.1 The parasite destroys the cells of the lining of the digestive tract and there is a reduction in nutrient absorption which reduces growth rates and feed conversion efficiency. The damage done to the gut can linger for months or even for the lifetime of the animal. Death can occur in severe cases.

Autumn-born calves are at great risk, particularly when housed. Cocci requires warmth and moisture to survive, and cattle housing is ideal for them. The warning also extends to cattle born earlier in the year; they may not have been exposed to the disease, which means they will not have built natural immunity and will also be at risk.

If we have a wet autumn, the infection risk will further increase, as the environment will be more favourable for the oocysts to spread from calf to calf.

Calves become infected by consuming coccidiosis eggs from pasture, feed, water, and bedding; or by licking contaminated calves. The parasite can exist for months in their surroundings and thrives in a moist, airy environment.

Signs of the disease include watery diarrhoea, sometimes with blood and straining. Calves will have muck on their tails and backends. They will also lack bloom and appear gaunt & weak. The disease usually appears after a period of stress such as weaning, moving or a nutritional change. Although adult cattle are rarely affected, they pass the coccidiosis eggs in their muck and serve as a source of infection for calves. Coccidiosis is seen in animals up to 2 years old and is particularly common in calves between 3 weeks and 6 months of age1.

Prevention of coccidiosis includes reducing the stocking density and bedding up well to prevent infection. Feed and water troughs should be off the ground and buildings should be cleaned & disinfected between groups. Also, you should avoid mixing different ages of calves.

Careful management to manage the numbers of oocysts in the environment is also key.

Failure to control the disease can influence future productivity levels, including growth rates, and can delay the onset of puberty, leading to milk loss production in dairy calves.

Tactical use of licensed products and methods to reduce environmental contamination can help keep its cause in check.

For further information and advice on coccidiosis and the appropriate treatment, please speak to one of our qualified animal health advisors (RAMAs).

1 NADIS – National Animal Disease Information Service