When a calf has septicemia, it has disease-producing organisms or their toxins in its blood. Septicemia in calves is usually the result of a bacterial infection that occurs while the calf is in the uterus, during, at or immediately after birth. The route of infection can be the blood of a sick dam, an infected placenta, the calf’s umbilical stump, mouth, nose (inhalation) or wound.

Septicemia is the most severe medical problem that a calf can develop because the blood-borne infection disseminates and damages many different organs. The bacteria that cause septicemia in calves, many of which are characterized as gram-negative bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, are difficult and expensive to treat, and survival rate is low.

Early signs of septicemia may be subtle but affected calves are usually depressed, weak, reluctant to stand, and suckle poorly within five days of birth. Swollen joints, diarrhea, pneumonia, meningitis, cloudy eyes and/or a large, tender navel may develop. Fever is not a consistent finding in septicemic calves; many have normal or subnormal temperatures. Most septicemic calves have a history of inadequate colostrum intake.

Dairy calves should be hand fed three quarts (Jerseys, Guernseys, Ayrshires) or four quarts (Holsteins, Brown Swiss) of colostrum. The entire volume should be from the first milking of a single cow. The entire volume can be delivered safely and effectively in a single feeding. Calves can suckle, be fed by esophageal feeder or receive colostrum by a combination of the two methods.