I love calves. They are adorable and funny. Whether it is bouncing around the pen or looking at you with their tongue out they always make me laugh. A barn full of healthy calves makes it a great day to be in the barn. On the other hand, a sick calf can frustrate you, exhaust you and generally ruin your day or your week. This is one of the hidden costs of disease. We are often quick to quantify the cost of disease in terms of calf loss, decreased growth, treatments- but what about the human cost of disease? A sick calf can easily result in spending anything from an extra 15 minutes a day to diagnose and appropriately intervene for something uncomplicated, to spending several hours on a single calf. If multiple calves are sick this becomes challenging to manage and can add a major emotional and labour cost to calf raisers.
In the short term, calf raisers may experience everything from frustration, sadness, fatigue, a sense of failure, and this can leave them vulnerable to becoming ill themselves. This is especially high risk when dealing with diarrhea outbreaks as several pathogens can also cause disease in humans. While in the short-term calf raisers can spend extra time, baby along a calf, the longer a problem goes on and the more calves that are sick - tough choices need to be made. Do you spend hours helping calves drink electrolytes or providing fluid, or do you finally get some sleep, see your loved ones, and take care of yourself? This is challenging for calf raisers that are emotionally invested in their calves. They want to go the extra mile to help the calf, but if they lack the time or energy to assist the calves they also know that more calves will become sick or die. This conflict can be devastating. The longer a disease outbreaks occurs, the more severe the illness, the more animals impacted, and more death that occurs, the greater the physical and emotional burnout. In the long-term, this results in a reluctance to enter the barn, more frustration, depression, sense of helplessness “well they will die anyway so why bother”, and can result in abnormal appearing normal or “calves just get sick and there is nothing you can do”. This can result in everything from reduced attention and effort with the calves to quitting completely. So how can we stop this?
First, ask for and offer help. Sick calves need time. Well some people are good at caring for calves, recognize illness and have the skills to care for them they are not superheroes. When calves become ill and need care and time to recover, see if labour can be shifted around. What regular tasks can be handled by someone else- feeding grain? cleaning equipment? bedding? With standard protocols in place some of these simpler tasks can be done by less experienced workers while the calf raiser can focus on helping sick calves and preventing further disease spread. Have a plan in place and support calf raisers so they can do their job and still meet their other basic commitments to their loved ones and themselves. Second, prevention. Invest in healthy calves and support ideas for improving how you raise calves. Keep records, some “outbreaks” are predictable, be it seasonally or after a management change such as weaning. Target prevention to these time periods and have supplies in place and extra tasks done ahead of time so that extra time can be spent with the calves either on prevention or treatment.
After a disease outbreak is under control, take some time to rest and recover. Talk about it with others. As a farm community, we are not always good at talking about our emotions. However, I have presented this topic at farm meetings many times and I always have someone come up to me afterwards and confess that they know exactly what I was talking about and express appreciating for bringing it up. Knowing you are not alone does help. My final advice to those going through this – it sucks. However, you can only do as much as you can, so cut yourself some slack. Then find the healthy bouncy calf and take some time to appreciate them and remind yourself why you have the best job – even if it is currently the worst.