Prevention is Key to Controlling Calf Scours
Julia Herman, DVM, MS, DACVPM Beef Cattle Specialist Veterinarian, NCBA, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff | February 27, 2023
There are many factors that play into keeping these calves healthy. Weather, as unpredictable as it has been this year, challenges producers to protect their herd and minimize negative effects. Providing shelter and dry bedding or ground is especially important for calves to help them regulate their body temperatures as the weather changes. With these fluctuations in moisture, how the environment is cared for around the calving herd can contribute to scours, pneumonia, or other health concerns. Scours, or calf diarrhea, is one of the most recognized illnesses in young beef calves and can be costly due to health, well-being, and performance. A calf’s ability to combat scours and other health concerns has multiple influences. These include providing quality care to the cow prior to, during, and after calving, minimizing exposure through hygiene and environmental management, and optimizing your monitoring and treatment program to the individual calf.
Prevention starts with the cow
When care is focused on the cow and heifer, there are short term and long-term benefits. Proper nutrition for the stage of gestation is important for the dam and for fetal development. Short term, the pregnant animal is maintaining body condition score and funneling energy towards growing a healthy calf. Long-term, she is also preparing herself for recovering post-calving and getting back to cycling as quickly as possible to be ready for the next breeding season. “With background management of the dam including dystocia, nutrition, and colostrum management, the goal is to maximize resistance of that calf to diseases,” explains Franklyn Garry, Professor and Extension Veterinarian at Colorado State University. “Colostrum, especially, has the most direct effect on calf survival from a nutrition and immunological standpoint.”
A common way to help the dam prepare for calving is administering vaccines 6-8 weeks prior to calving. During this last trimester is when many producers will have their veterinarian give vaccinations which boosts immunity in the cow and prepares the antibodies in the colostrum for the impending calf. Scours vaccines that protect against E. coli K99 and clostridial disease will be beneficial to that calf when it consumes colostrum. Always follow the Checkoff-funded Beef Quality Assurance guidelines and adhere to label instructions closely when administering cattle health products. Working closely with your veterinarian will determine which vaccination protocols are beneficial in your area and for your specific herd.
Once calving season starts, it is important for calves to receive that colostrum in the first four hours of birth as it will protect the calf from infectious diseases through passive immunity in addition to providing nutrition for warmth. Work with your veterinarian to discuss what colostrum replacers vs. supplement products are best for your operation for times when the dam’s colostrum is not available.
Hygiene and a clean environment
Keeping the environment as clean as possible for new calves will help them start off on the right hoof. Newborn calves’ immune systems are not fully developed until they are a few months old, so reducing the exposure to pathogens is important. Garry emphasizes that, “Proper hygiene, infection control, and environmental management are the most important preventive measures that cattle producers can take to prevent and manage scouring calves.” This also includes managing stocking density within the calving areas. Most calf scours outbreaks occur between 1-2 weeks of age so producers can plan ahead to prevent younger calves from being exposed to scours pathogens. Good nutrition of the calf and dam is also important in these stages so the calf has the hydration and nutrition to help get through a scours event.
A proven method to reduce the risk of scours in young calves is the Sandhills Calving System. This strategy includes rotating pastures so those cows/heifers that have not yet calved are moved to a fresh pasture about every 10-14 days. This reduces the risk of younger calves being exposed to scours pathogens by effectively getting calves born in places not in contact with older calves that are shedding scours-causing pathogens. Though this system was described with multiple pastures in mind, the principles can be applied to any type of calving area. More information on this system can be found on the University of Nebraska—Lincoln’s Beef Cattle Production website (beef.unl.edu). Accurate records will help keep pairs matched up as you move cattle to new pastures.
Oral electrolyte therapy and other treatment considerations
In most cases of calves with scours, the right nutrition and electrolyte care will help them recover quite well. “The key is early diagnosis and administration of oral electrolyte solutions to offset dehydration,” adds Garry. “The majority of calves that are bright and alert, have mild to moderate dehydration, no other health concern like pneumonia, and are still standing and suckling will respond well to oral electrolyte therapy.” A single 2-quart treatment of electrolytes will not be enough so plan to provide oral electrolyte supplementation 1-2 times a day for at least a couple of days to these calves.
There are several oral electrolyte products for calves available on the market. Ideally, the calf electrolyte should replace sodium lost through diarrhea, have ingredients that help the intestines absorb the sodium and water (like acetate or glucose), and provide an alkalinizing agent (such as acetate or bicarbonate) to correct the acidosis created by lost sodium. Some products cannot be mixed with milk and should be provided a couple of hours away from feeding so the milk does not curdle in the stomach and cause bloating. It is worth discussing the products with your veterinarian to ensure the electrolyte products you have work well and are correct for scouring calves. It is important to remember that young calves have very low body fat storage (about 4% at birth), so milk must continue to be provided to calves during treatment of scours. Milk feedings produce energy and are essential for nutrition, gut health, and immune function.
Sometimes scouring calves will need advanced treatment beyond oral electrolyte therapy. If a scouring calf starts looking depressed, has a weak suckle, and does not stand, this calf likely has a more complicated scours case with invasive bacteria or is sick with a concurrent illness like pneumonia. Severe depression, weak suckle, and other signs such as respiratory or inflammation can be suggestive of septicemia, or blood infection, and these calves cannot survive on only oral electrolyte therapy. These calves will need more aggressive intravenous (IV) fluid therapy and antibiotics, so calling your veterinarian promptly for intervention can provide a better prognosis for these calves.
While oral calf boluses have been given to scouring calves in the past, there is little evidence to support its use for this purpose and may actually be harmful to healing the calf. With the common viral and parasitic pathogens that cause calf scours, including rotavirus, coronavirus, and cryptosporidium, antibiotics are not useful in treating simple viral or parasitic infections. Oral antibiotics, as seen in human medicine, can have a negative effect on the gut microbiome, or healthy gut bacteria, and cause an imbalance to make the diarrhea worse. These boluses are not selective in what bacteria they effect, so both good and bad bacteria are being removed which disturbs normal gut function in the calf. Finally, if a calf becomes ill enough to need antibiotics (as with complicated scours or a comorbidity), injectable antibiotics are more consistently absorbed and more effective than oral antibiotics. Oral electrolytes should be the first treatment that producers reach for when combating calf scours.
A final diagnostic tool that is not utilized enough for disease outbreaks is necropsy, or a post-mortem exam. If there are calves dying in the herd, this is the most effective way to determine what disease process is occurring. Cattle producers are very capable of completing a calf necropsy, sending photos to their veterinarian, and collecting samples to mail to the local diagnostic lab. This is another opportunity to learn from your herd veterinarian and have a plan for potential calf illness events.
Dehydration and loss of electrolytes from calf diarrhea are very treatable when identified early and treated aggressively with oral electrolytes. Monitoring your calves for all types of problems, not just diarrhea, can help you and your veterinarian decide what type of treatment the calf needs. As spring progresses, there are several ways to prevent calves from getting sick and maximize their potential. For further guidelines on biosecurity, record keeping, and herd health management, check out the BQA Field Guide at bqa.org.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of NCBA National Cattlemen newsletter.