Sick calves lose money

Manage scouring calves with electrolytes

When calves get scours, they may get dehydrated and experience electrolyte loss. As a result, the calf’s risk of death increases, which would be a major loss in this market environment. Because of this, oral electrolyte solutions designed to counter these effects are an important way to keep calves going.

A good electrolyte solution will replace lost fluids and restore the calf’s acid/base balance. It will also supply nutrients and energy to the animal. When considering if a particular electrolyte solution is right for your calves, there are a number of things to keep in mind.

First, oral electrolyte solutions must have an alkalinizing agent to reverses the acidosis caused by the acid/base imbalance that comes from scours. For years, bicarbonate has been effectively used to achieve this goal.

New research has shown however, that using acetate or propionate as the alkalinizing agents in electrolyte solution may provide improvements over bicarbonate. Acetate and propionate produce energy when they are digested, they also promote water and sodium absorption in the calf’s intestine—bicarbonate does not do these things.

Additionally, oral electrolyte solutions containing bicarbonate can potentially raise the pH level in the calf’s abomasum. This higher pH level can promote the growth of salmonella and other bacteria and may sometimes result in worse scouring. Using acetate- or propionate-based electrolyte solutions helps prevent increases of abomasal pH. That seems to be its edge to bicarbonate as an alkalinizing agent in electrolyte solutions.

In order to replace lost electrolytes, oral solutions should contain sodium and potassium. Moreover, look for a product that provides glucose and glycine. In addition to providing energy, these ingredients will help promote absorption of water and sodium from the intestine.

Some oral electrolytes contain dietary fiber, usually psyllium. This is the same stuff as in Metamucil.  These products will thicken the calf’s manure and make it look like the diarrhea is improving. However, this addition of fiber will cause less glucose absorption and can lead to reduced energy levels for calf. This range of fiber may even cause prolonged scouring. For scouring calves, I don’t recommend using oral electrolytes containing dietary fiber.

While using electrolyte solution, you should provide the nutrients and fluids found in the calf’s normal diet. This means you should continue to feed milk or milk replacer. If you starve a calf, it will quit scouring because it has nothing left in its digestive tract. However, there is no proven benefit to removing milk or milk replacer from a calf’s diet. My reading of the research indicates that pulling the milk or milk replacer will worsen the calf’s negative energy balance. Its prognosis will be worse off for it. If you pull milk replacer when your calves are scouring, you are making a mistake. While milk or replacer should continue to be fed, electrolytes and milk or milk replacer should not be fed at the same time. It is best to add the oral electrolyte solution as a separate meal between regular milk or milk replacer feedings. For example, if you feed milk in the morning and evening, you could administer an oral electrolyte during the middle of the day and again late at night.

Beyond providing milk and electrolyte, be sure to have free-choice water available to the calves at all times.

While oral feeding solutions are very useful, it is important to know when other interventions are called for. Calves that cannot lift their heads or stand may need intravenous fluids. Work with your veterinarian, ASM or calf specialist to choose the product most suited to the particular situation you are dealing with.

Aside from scouring calves, it is sometimes necessary to deliver electrolytes for other reasons. Electrolytes can alleviate the effects of hot weather on calves and can be used to combat dehydration that may occur during stressful times (weaning, pen moves, de-horning/castration and transport). In these situations, offer the electrolyte solution free-choice along with water, or feed it during every other water feeding. If calves are not scouring but you want to offer them electrolytes to help combat stress or reduce shrink, use a diluted solution of electrolytes. A good starting point is about a third to half the amount of powder you would use on scouring calves.

Dr. Jim White is the Director of Nutrition at MFA Incorporated. Questions? Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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