Springtime calving. The time of year bringing longer hours of daylight, warmer sunshine, galloping baby calves, an end in sight with winter weather, cows nurturing their young – and scours.
“Cattle of any age can develop diarrhea, however, most cases of calf scours occur in the first month of life. There are a variety of causes of scours in baby calves,” says Kevin Gould and Dr. Dan Grooms of Michigan State University.
Scours, also called diarrhea, are watery stools that are shades of brown, grey, green and yellow. Blood and mucus in stools can be associated with scours.
The causes of this dehydrating immune killer are infectious agents including viruses, parasites and bacteria. Typically a case of scours includes a combination of these agents.
According to Gould and Grooms, the infectious agents are mostly shed in fecal matter.
“Studies have demonstrated that many pathogens responsible for scours are shed in the normal-appearing feces of healthy, pregnant beef cows and shedding increases as the pregnant cows approached their calving date, says Gould and Grooms. “Shedding is heaviest in heifers, and shedding tended to increase after cold weather.”
Healthy, older calves can become infected with the agents, also becoming culprits of contaminating the herd environment. This puts young calves in a war zone, especially in concentrated areas like feeding areas and shelters.
While cases can last 1-2 days or even up to 2 weeks, left untreated and they can result in death.
”The highest priority in treating scours is to give back to the calf the water and electrolytes that it has lost in scours – this is called fluid therapy,” says Gould and Grooms. “This corrects dehydration, restores normal acid-base balance, and replaces salts in the calf’s bodily fluids.”
Oral administration: Recommended for calves that are strong enough to follow their dams and move away when approached. This involves giving calves water and electrolytes with an esophageal feeder.
“Depending on the size of the calf and the severity of the scours, 2 - 6 quarts of electrolytes may need to be administered each day. Typically, the total volume of fluid is divided into two or more feedings per day,” says Gould and Grooms.
Intravenous administration: This is recommended for severe cases where calves have become too weak to stand and lethargic.
“Some experienced operators can place a catheter in a scouring calf’s vein; this is most often performed by a veterinarian or veterinary technician,” says Gould and Grooms. “The volume to be given depends on the calf’s size and the severity of the scours.”
While calves typically regain appetite and energy after receiving treatment, calves with severe scours may need nutritional support for multiple days to get healthy. In this case, Gould and Grooms recommend producers consult their veterinarian and develop a feeding regimen.
They also remind producers to provide adequate shelter and bedding during cold spells for calves, and if possible, to separate infected calves from healthy calves. Since some the infectious agents are so easily transmitted, it’s stressed to practice biosecurity.
“It is important to note that some infectious agents that make calves ill can also make people sick. People working with scouring calves should wash their hands before and after handling calves, their feed or their bedding. Practicing proper biosecurity is critical,” says Gould and Grooms.
According to them, no more that 2-3 percent of a producer’s calf crop should develop scours.
It is essential calves receive colostrum after being born, even if it’s through an esophageal feeder. This will help boost the immune system to fight infectious agents. Producers can also develop a vaccination program to boost colostrum antibodies concentration.
Gould and Grooms also recommend to maintain clean calving areas, avoiding areas where large numbers of cows have been kept for extended periods of time.
“The key is to prevent a scours infection and outbreak whenever possible. Good biosecurity, hygiene and proper nutrition for the dam and calf are imperative,” concludes Gould and Grooms. “Infectious agents that cause calf scours are shed by healthy cows and calves so it is not considered practical to expect to prevent scours from ever occurring on your farm.”