There are several tools available for cow/calf producers that can lead to a decrease in one of the primary problems seen in neonatal calves – diarrhea. Diarrhea is a leading cause of mortality in baby calves and has many causes.
There are many causes of neonatal diarrhea – bacteria, viruses and parasites can all be involved. Primary bacteria implicated are E. coli, Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens. Rotavirus and Coronavirus species are viruses most often seen as causes of diarrhea in baby calves. Primary parasitic causes are Cryptosporidium and species of coccidia.
The number one management tool in my mind is cleanliness of the environment. Far too often I am called to provide treatment of scouring calves and find round bale feeders surrounded by knee deep manure, muddy pastures with too many cows on too few acres or muddy calving barns with poor drainage and inadequate bedding. Calves born in dirty conditions are quickly exposed to diarrhea causing organisms. Wet, muddy conditions cause calves to become cold and stressed during late winter and early spring. This stress depresses the immature immune system and prevents the calf from fighting off infection. My recommendation is to roll hay out on clean pasture, rotating throughout the pasture, and avoid using stationary feeders during cold, wet weather that is often present during calving seasons. In addition, clean pastures help keep udders and teats cleaner, limiting exposure to pathogens while nursing. Failure to keep the environment clean will wipe out all other efforts to limit the effects of diarrhea.
The next most important factor in preventing neonatal diarrhea is good nutrition. Cows that are in excellent body condition and a high nutritional plane have calves that stand and nurse faster, produce higher quality colostrum and milk better than cows fed a poor diet during the last trimester before calving. Nutrition is a key to year round productivity of everyone’s cowherd and this must be a priority. Diets must contain adequate energy and protein as well as appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals. Quality sources of water are also a necessary part of any diet.
The third tool I want to mention is vaccination. Make no mistake – vaccination can be an important tool in any disease prevention program, but it is not a cure all or a band-aid for poor nutrition and filthy environments. Vaccination as the sole means of diarrhea prevention is doomed to fail, costing you money for the vaccine, time and loss of productivity. Before undertaking a vaccination program, work with your veterinarian to determine the primary diseases causing problems in your herd. Vaccines are available in many commercial formulations that can assist in combating a variety of calf diarrhea pathogens. It is necessary to do some diagnostic testing in many cases to determine the appropriate vaccine for your herd.
Dr. Mike Bloss, DVM, owns and operates Countryside Animal Clinic, with his wife, Kristin Bloss, DVM. The mixed animal practice is located in Aurora, Mo.


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