Skip to main content

Dr. Shelby Roberts: Caring for calf scours

October 21, 2019
Caring for calf scours

The USDA has reported that about 61% of calf sickness is due to scours.

Calf scours is responsible for about 61% of all sickness in cattle and can affect farmers’ profitability. How can farmers improve the health of their calves? Dr. Shelby Roberts, researcher at Alltech, shares what causes this common disease and best practices for preventing calf scours in the future.

The following is an edited transcript of Kara Keeton’s interview with Dr. Shelby Roberts. Click below to hear the full audio.


Kara:              Alltech researcher Dr. Shelby Roberts is joining me today to talk about health issues in the beef cattle industry. Thank you for joining me.


Shelby:          Thank you for having me.


Kara:              Well, I know that you have a long history and interest in beef cattle because you grew up in Texas. Tell me a little bit about your background and why the beef cattle industry is so important to you.


Shelby:          I grew up on about a 400-head commercial cow operation in West Texas, so it's in my blood. I've grown up doing it, so it's just something that is a part of my tradition and something that I enjoy and like to do with my family as well.


Kara:              So, you've definitely worked with beef cattle your whole life, and you understand, like so many individuals in the cattle industry do, that scours is a problem for cattle. How big of an issue, though, is it, for those that might not be as familiar with the beef cattle industry? Is it something that all beef producers are concerned about?


Shelby:          I would say that is probably something that all beef producers are concerned about. The USDA has reported that about 61% of calf sickness is actually due to scours, so I'm going to say that probably every farmer or rancher is worried about scours in their herd.


Kara:              Scours is a concern, then, because, if you have health issues with your calves, that equates to losing money. So, how big of an economic impact does it have on farmers?


Shelby:          It's kind of hard to put down a specific number for those farmers, but it's going to be due to losses in the performance not only of that calf, but maybe that dam as well. So, if that calf is sick, they're not going to be eating and gaining weight, so those are just some losses that you're not going to be able to maybe pick up, but, in the long run, you're not going to get the full growth of that animal when you wean them. It's also a loss of time. You're going to have to spend that time doctoring because, once you get one calf with scours, you're probably going to have two or three, maybe 10 to 20, that get scours, so you're going to have to spend the time treating those animals and also making sure that you care and maintain those animals.


Kara:              What is it that causes scours in calves? Is it just one issue? Are there several things that can happen on a farm or ranch that result in calves getting scours?


Shelby:          There are actually several pathogens that can cause scours. Most of the time, if you're diagnosing scours, it's not just one pathogen; it's multiple pathogens. So, it's multifaceted, and there are different aspects that can affect the calf. It's going to be an environmental thing, such as E. coli, salmonella in the soil. Rotavirus is another thing that, if your herds get infected with it, they can get scours as well.


Kara:              The new research is looking at ways to address scours in calves. Can you tell me a little bit about your research and maybe some stories and examples of how you all have been treating scours?


Shelby:          Yes. At Alltech, we've been looking at treating scours as a preventative, so what we have is we have some prebiotic products. It is just the cell wall of a live yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, and we feed that to the dams. When you feed it to the dam, you're improving her colostrum quality, so when she has that calf and she passes that immunity from herself to that calf when it drinks colostrum, we're improving the health through the colostrum of that animal, and then, you're preparing that calf for any of the pathogens that it's going to encounter in the environment.


Kara:              Are there other Alltech products or other research avenues you're looking at to address preventative methods?


Shelby:          Yes, there are other preventative methods. One would be mineral nutrition, making sure that that dam is having her mineral requirements met, specifically trace minerals. When you think of the immune system, trace minerals actually are a key point in many of either enzymes or other factors in the immune system, so trace mineral status — making sure that that dam has the correct minerals she needs for immunity — is really important as well. That would be another aspect that Alltech is looking at as well.


Kara:              We're looking at researching preventative ways. So, how do farmers approach this on the farm? You're talking about the dam, the mama cow, as most people refer to her. Are there other things that farmers need to look at — biosecurity issues on the farm — to address this problem?


Shelby:          Yes, so, not only can you address it through feeding those mama cows early, but you can also look at it through biosecurity. So, again, we know those pathogens are probably in the soil and that they affect those calves at different ages. So, one, when you get new heifers or new animals to the farm, make sure, for the first two weeks, that they're separated from the main herd. That's mainly just to prevent any bugs that they have brought onto the farm from getting into the main herd.


                        Secondly, we want to wean those animals who are calving. Make sure you keep that calving area clean. I know, this year, especially in the southeast, it's been a problem; we've had lots of rain, so it's been muddy. But those pathogens live in the soil, so, when it gets muddy, it gets harder for those dams who want to stay clean — but also, you're spreading those pathogens around a lot easier, so maintaining a clean-as-possible calving area.


                        I would suggest, if you have multiple herds, in the first week of calves, for a week, you have all the calves, and you put those in a pen. Then you move them to another site, and then you manage your calves in groups. So, the first week or two, those calves stay together, until weaning. And then, when you get the second group, for a week or two, those calves are born — move those into another group. That just prevents those calves, the older calves, from spreading pathogens to those newer-born calves as well. Also, those calves, those new calves, could have some pathogens as well. You bring that into the older group and, then, those calves get sick as well, and then you just have a vicious cycle of animals getting sick and sick and sick.


Kara:              A lot of this is working with farmers and educating farmers on biosecurity issues, as well as addressing the supplement or utilizing trace minerals, correct?


Shelby:          Correct, yes. That's right.


Kara:              We've talked about how identifying scours early on is a preventative approach, but also, it can have an impact on the calf development, nutrition and immunity. You've touched on that briefly. Can you talk a little bit more about how this pathogen can impact the animal once it is already born and in the growth time of a calf?


Shelby:          Right. Once those calves are born, they're naïve, so they don't have any — unlike humans, where, from the mom to the baby, we can pass antibodies. Those are things that are needed to, for specific pathogens, it can take and fight those pathogens. In calves, we don't have that, so getting colostrum in those animals is really important, because that's their source of immunity for the first week or two, until they can get their own immune system fully developed.


                        The problem is, when you get it in those from a day old to two-week calves, where they're naïve, those animals are really susceptible to scours because they don't have any way to fight it, right? They are just naïve, and so, their immune system, since it's not functioning, they're going to get sick a lot quicker, and it's probably going to be a pretty bad sickness, because it's going to take them a while to get over it.


Kara:              A lot of this is, really, herd management, is what it comes down to; it comes back to the farmer being educated on nutritional sources as well as herd management. Now, I know a lot of your research is focused more on the nutritional sources, but when you're out working in a farm and working with a farmer, what have you seen that their approach is to addressing these issues, and can you give us an example of a farmer you've worked with in some of your research trials that really has taken an innovative approach to addressing scours?


Shelby:          Yes. The problem most farmers have, I would say, is they're not doing it preventively; they're doing it as a treatment source. Nutritional sources are going to be needed to be used as preventatives. You're going to have to treat it with an antibiotic or some other treatment to help those calves recover, because they're already sick. When we approach health through nutrition, we want to approach it as, we're setting these animals up to get better.


                        One farm, for example, would be farms that use low-stress management and, then, they're feeding the dams to feed the calves. We have a farm that uses Bio-Mos. They put it out into a tub, a mineral tub, for their dams a month before those calves are supposed to be born, so they're preparing those dams. They're getting those antibodies built up in that mama cow before she calves. Those mama cows stay on that until about a month after the last calf is born. So, again, we're just setting those calves up. Then, when we wean those calves, that farmer puts Bio-Mos into the supplement that is available to those calves because, one, Bio-Mos tastes good, so those animals are going to want to eat it. So, if you can get calves to — especially during weaning — get them on feed faster, you're going to have less stress, and they're going to have less weight loss, because they're actually getting up on feed and recovering faster.


                        Bio-Mos, it's really a management tool, like you said. We want to use management but also use nutrition to help improve those calves, because we know that the beef system is stressful, right? We have cow-calf, we have stockers or feedlot entry. Those are three very stressful periods in the calf's life, so if we know that those three periods exist, we need to prepare that animal to go in so that they're healthier when they get to the feedlot.


Kara:              And healthier cows bring more money for the farmer, which is what they're looking for.


Shelby:          That's right.


Kara:              Where do you see the future of your research in the beef cattle industry? Is there anything specific you're excited about or looking forward to diving into in the near future?


Shelby:          Yes. I'm really looking forward to looking at those management systems, at the stressors, so looking at those periods of how, at those stressors, if we're doing it preventively, how can we influence the management of those herds to provide healthier calves so that they can produce more money for those producers? If you have heavier weaning rates, that means you're going to get paid more for those calves.


                        Secondly, I think nutrition receiving at the feedlot is also another interesting avenue of research, because we know most of those calves going into the feedlot are going to be highly stressed, just because of the system. They're going to be transported somewhere new, maybe calming all those other animals. So, maybe, ways through nutrition, instead of having — especially with the reduction of antibiotics that is being pushed down from the consumers — so, how can we maybe use some nutritional approaches to help alleviate that stress and help those animals perform better in the feedlot?


Kara:              Well, best of luck to your future research, and thank you for joining me today, Shelby.


Shelby:          Thank you.


Kara:              That was Alltech researcher Dr. Shelby Roberts.  


I want to learn more about improving health for my beef cattle