Causes and cures for scours in calves

Scours or calf diarrhea can be a serious problem for producers. In some cases, scours can be fatal in young calves. 

“Calves that suffer from scours can become critically ill in a short period of time,” Jeremy Powell, DVM and Ph.D., with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, explained. “Scours can quickly lead to dehydration and electrolyte depletion which could eventually cause the animal’s death.”

There are several pathogens that can cause a calf to have scours. Those pathogens are E. coli, rotavirus, corona virus, cryptosporidium and Clostridium perfringens. “The agent that is responsible for the disease is usually determined by the calf’s age as well as the integrity of the calf’s defenses,” Powell stated.

The pathogens that cause scours are contagious. A calf with scours can contaminate the pasture or calving environment which can lead to scours in other calves. Fortunately, there are some preventative measures producers can implement to decrease the likelihood of a calf scours outbreak in their herd.

Maximize Colostrum Transfer

Newborn calves that receive an adequate amount of quality colostrum are better equipped to build the immunity they need to fight off pathogens that cause scours. “Colostrum plays a vital role in the newborn’s immune status during the first few months of its life,” Powell said. “Colostrum is made up of essential nutrients for the newborn calf including energy, protein and antibodies,” Powell said. 

In many cases, if a calf fails to receive the proper amount of colostrum, it will be more susceptible to the pathogens that cause calf scours.   

Vaccinate Bred Cows 

Vaccinating a bred cow with a calf scour vaccine well ahead of calving provides protection for her future calf.  The vaccination given to the bred cow helps to ensure the calf will receive defensive antibodies against calf scours from colostrum. “To optimize a high level of antibodies against calf scours in the cow’s colostrum, she should be vaccinated approximately six weeks prior to calving,” Powell stated. “If a scours vaccine has never been used in a herd, then a booster dose may be required.”

Proper Nutrition   

For a cow to produce quality colostrum she must have adequate nutrition during her gestation period. Protein is the most important nutrient for the production of sufficient colostrum. Therefore, protein is essential in a cow’s diet in order for her to produce quality colostrum that will give her calf good immune health. 

  Colostrum contains large amounts of antibodies made of protein from the cow’s immune system. “Depending on breed, a cow in late gestation should receive 1.5 to 2 pounds of protein per head, per day to meet requirement,” Powell said. “Cows of adequate body condition (BCS = 5.5 to 6.0) should normally produce good quality colostrum.”

Environmental Factors 

Proper herd management through optimizing environmental sanitation and decreasing overcrowding on pastures will also help prevent calf scours. A rotational calving/grazing system will minimize overcrowding on calving pastures and decrease the likelihood of environmental exposure to pathogens.  

According to Powell, producers should consider rotating heavy springing cows into fresh calving pastures every week or two of the calving season and leaving behind those cows with newborn calves by side. This management practice helps to segregate newborns by age decreasing the likelihood for newborns to become exposed to calf scours and shared among the group.

Treatment for Scours

If a calf scours outbreak occurs producers should focus their treatment efforts on correcting any fluid deficits, treating electrolyte imbalances, providing nutritional support and administering a broad-spectrum antibiotic if needed.  

If the calf is suffering from dehydration, then oral or intravenous fluids may be used to remedy the problem. Electrolyte powders can be added to oral solutions in order to correct electrolyte imbalances. “Also, it is important to replace energy stores with oral or IV fluids containing glucose or dextrose supplements,” Powell added.  

Lastly, a broad-spectrum antibiotic can be administered for calf scours caused by bacterial infections. It is important to consult with a veterinarian for treatment advice if the operation has any issue with calf scours. “Remember that when dealing with calf scours the key is to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place,” Powell stated.


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