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6 tips for calf scours prevention

November 8, 2021
calf scours prevention

The hustle and bustle of spring calving is quickly approaching, and now is the time for cow/calf producers to begin planning their calving management strategies. Making time to do the proper planning prior to the start of calving can improve overall animal welfare and can save producers both time and energy. One of the keys to successful calving planning is the anticipation of any possible health challenges that could impact calf and/or overall herd health. Management protocols designed to prevent disease exposure should be considered and implemented prior to the start of calving, and producers should contact their local veterinarians about the potential treatment protocols in the case of widespread disease.

One disease complex that producers should develop management strategies for is calf scours, also known as calfhood diarrhea. Scours is the leading cause of early calf death. This illness is the result of inflammation of the intestinal tract, which can be caused by a variety of infectious agents, including bacteria (E. coli or Salmonella), viruses (rotavirus or bovine viral diarrhea virus) and parasites (coccidia). The occurrence of scours can impact profitability via both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include revenue loss due to calf death, additional labor and medicinal costs, while indirect costs include reduced performance in calves that got sick but recovered.

Implementing preventative management practices can prove to be an effective tool for preventing scours infections in a new calf crop. Here are a few strategies to help control scours events:

1. Properly manage calving areas

The period of greatest risk for a calf to get scours is the first 10 to 14 days after birth. As such, maintaining clean, dry calving areas is essential for minimizing calf exposure to causative agents. Many causative agents — such as E. coli, Salmonella and coccidia — are found in manure. Avoid overcrowding in calving areas to minimize manure contamination. If the environmental conditions make it hard to maintain dry calving areas, it is essential to provide manure-free, dry bedding areas that are large enough to allow both the dam and the calf to get out of the mud. This is important for maintaining the health of both the cow and the newborn calf.

Minimize commingling among herds after calving, especially during the first month of the calf’s life. This will prevent the spread of infection from apparently healthy older calves to younger calves, whose immune systems are more naïve.

Keeping calving heifers separated from the older cow herd can also help reduce scours. Heifers tend to have lower-quality colostrum, which can leave their young calves at a higher risk compared to calves from older cows.

2. Isolate sick calves quickly

Many causative agents are contagious, so quickly identifying and removing sick calves and their dams is essential to preventing widespread infection. To be able to successfully and quickly remove animals from the herd, producers must first be able to recognize the signs of a scours infection. Diarrhea is the most easily identifiable symptom. Diarrhea is classified as loose, watery stool and may be brown, green, yellow, white or even blood-red in color. Other symptoms to look for include weak suckling reflexes, depression and dehydration, which can manifest as sunken eyes or abdomen.

3. Quickly provide treatment

Once sick calves are identified, addressing dehydration should be prioritized as the first method of treatment. Fluids and electrolyte solutions need to be provided to rehydrate calves, as diarrhea can quickly dehydrate young calves and, if left unaddressed, can be deadly.

4. Maintain the proper dam nutrition

Establishing the proper dam nutrition begins prior to calving. Meeting their nutritional requirements — including energy and trace minerals — is necessary for dams to be able to produce quality colostrum. Colostrum is the mother’s first milk and is high in nutrients and maternal antibodies. At birth, calves are born with a naïve immune system, so the proper transfer of maternal antibodies to the calf is critical for establishing early calf immunity.

5. Establish a vaccination program

Work with your local veterinarian to develop a vaccination protocol that fits your herd and its specific challenges. Scours vaccination protocols can include both dam vaccination (to promote the transfer of antibodies through colostrum) as well as calf vaccination at birth (to support the calf’s naïve immune system).

6. Promote gut health

Scours are the result of an unhealthy gut environment — an environment where the beneficial bacteria that reside in the gut are outnumbered by pathogenic bacteria. Supplementing the herd with yeast cell wall products, which are classified as prebiotics, can help promote the growth of the beneficial bacterial and support healthy immune function.

The goal of calving season is to produce healthy calves — and the production of healthy calves starts prior to calving. Implementing preventive health management strategies can prove to be both effective and economical for producers.   


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