Calf scours is a common setback

Written by Dr. Jim White on .

Good nutrition and vigilant care can limit loss

Calf scours is costly to your herd. Most veterinarians tell me the general causes of calf scours are infectious bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella or clostridia. Or the source can be viruses such as rotavirus, coronavirus or BVD. And finally, parasites such as coccidian or crypto can cause scours.

Livestock pass these disease agents through manure. As animals shed these infectious agents, their bacteria and virus numbers build up where animals spend the most time.

Overcrowding particularly exacerbates the problem—causing the infectious agents to drastically increase in the environment (additional stress leads to increased shedding).

Scours affect calves most often through dehydration and altering the animal’s acid/base balance. Additionally the lining of the intestine becomes inflamed. If the calf has enteritis, its ability to absorb nutrients is reduced and its growth rate is negatively affected. Some infectious agents, say clostridia, can release endotoxins that can kill the calf.

These infectious agents are very common, yet frequently they are seen in some places and not in others. This variability goes to show there are many factors in the incidence of infection and disease among livestock. Some variables include genetics (some lines are heartier than others), nutrition, underfeeding protein and available energy. Lack of vitamins or minerals can significantly influence calf performance as well.

The dam is another factor–calves from heifers tend to be at greater risk than the calves of mature cows.

Stocking rates affect the incidence of scours. Overcrowding barn lots increases the chance of scours, and the longer cows are in an area, the greater the buildup of infectious agents. Of course wet and cold weather, which makes the herd pack together, increases the load of infectious agents. In fact, wet conditions in general give scour-causing agents a better chance to infect hosts. You’ve all seen it: cows lay down in the slop; calves suck their dirty teats and the disease agents are introduced to the calf.

The herd and individual dam’s vaccination/immune status also has an affect on the incidence of scours. A healthy dam will produce antibodies to counter disease organisms and store them in her colostrum. One of the most important things in a calf’s life is to get adequate quality and quantity of colostrum.

What to look for
Usually when calves are scouring, they will look weak, depressed and have lost their desire to eat. They will develop a sunken-eyed appearance due to dehydration. They will appear listless, and might be too weak to stand. At this point it is likely their future is short.

Depending on the cause(s) and the severity of the infection, a case of scours in a calf can last anywhere from a day to two weeks. During this time, you’ll observe watery fecals. Fecals may be off-color or may contain blood or mucus. Fecals with significant blood are usually associated with infections by coccidian, salmonella or clostridium bacteria.

Prevention and cure
One of the best prevention paths for scours is to feed a high-quality supplemental feed like Cattle Charge. Even better, you can simply follow Health Track protocols for all growing animals. It builds immunity and provides needed nutrients.

Because many of the infectious agents that cause calf scours are shed by healthy cows and calves, it is not considered practical to expect to prevent scours from ever occurring on your farm. Instead, you should work toward a target to have no more than two or three percent of your calf crop develop scours.

Maintain a clean calving area. Do not calve on pastures where cows have been kept in large numbers for long periods of time. If possible, segregate calves by age to prevent passage of infectious agents from apparently healthy, older calves to newborns. This usually entails moving cows that have not calved into new pastures while keeping pairs in pastures where the calves were born. Pregnancy exams can be used to sort cows into early and late-calving groups.

Sloped or drained areas will tend to be drier and cleaner for cattle. If pastures cannot be rotated, consider dragging the pasture to increase the dispersion and drying of manure.

It is critical that all calves receive adequate colostrum as soon as possible after birth. If the birth was difficult, the dam may be tired and hurting. And, the calf might also be weakened. Under either circumstance, the calf might fail to nurse. In these cases, the calf should be fed colostrum. You can get colostrum replacers from your local MFA.

Vaccinating the cow herd against scours-causing diseases will help increase immunity to the disease. Work with your veterinarian to develop an effective program. When vaccinating cattle, ensure that they are getting adequate energy, protein, vitamins and minerals (supplemental feed will help ensure that they are in good enough condition to get the proper response from the vaccine).

Treating scours
Many of the bugs we’re talking about here also affect people, so when you’re working with infected animals, wear gloves. Thoroughly wash and disinfect clothing, equipment and anything in contact with the sick calves. From a practical perspective this means you should do chores among healthy calves first, then work on the sick ones (and then clean and disinfect).

The principle objective of treating scours is to get lost water and electrolytes back into the calf. This is “fluid therapy” and the intent is to relieve the dehydration, correct the animal’s acid/base balance, replace cations (sodium, potassium) lost in the scours. For rough figuring, expect calves to need a gallon of fluids each day. The faster they tighten up, the happier you’ll be. Letting them drink on their own is what you hope for, but if they won’t or can’t drink enough on their own, there a couple ways to introduce fluids.

Orally: if the calf can stand, grab it and dose with an esophageal feeder. Always follow label directions when making up the electrolyte solution, this will typically mean using plain, clean water to make the solution. I resist the temptation to make it better by adding some of the secret ingredients you hear about: vinegar, evaporated milk, corn syrup solids, etc.

Intravenous: obviously this is for very weak calves–ones that can’t stand and look like they might end up in the mortality column. You and your vet need to work out the path forward for treating such calves.

Scouring calves frequently do not want to nurse, they tend to lay about and shiver. Keeping them warm, hydrated and fed an energy source will do much to help them get over the incident. Scours may require a course of antibiotics. If that’s the case, your veterinarian will be of great help determining the appropriate antibiotic treatment.

Dr. Jim White is a Ruminant Nutritionist for MFA Incorporated. READ MORE OF DR. JIM WHITE'S ARTICLES HERE.