Cleaning Up the Treatment of Dairy Calf Scours

In dairy calves, scours or diarrhea is prevalent, especially during the spring and summer months. Scours can quickly lead to dehydration and death if not treated promptly. Most producers can quickly recognize calf manure changes from semi-formed and sitting on top of bedding to liquid and soaking bedding. Sometimes scours manure can be a different color than normal manure, but color has little diagnostic value unless there is blood. Scours can be caused by infection, inadequate nutrition, improper feeding schedule, the incorrect temperature of milk, incorrect mixing of milk, or a combination of these factors. 95% of infectious scours in calves under 3 weeks of age are caused by rotavirus, coronavirus or Cryptosporidium. Calves are exposed to these pathogens in the environment. All three pathogens cause damage to the small intestine lining, impacting the calf ’s ability to absorb nutrients and water. Poor nutrition is the leading cause of scours as calves need adequate nutrition to grow and build up their immune systems. Two quarts of milk twice a day do not provide the calf with enough surplus energy to maintain a healthy immune system. Calves need 1.5 to 2 gallons of whole milk or high-quality milk  replacer each day for good health. Incorrect timing, temperature, and mixing can also induce scours. Calves should be fed on a schedule that you adhere to. It would be best to feed milk or milk replacer at approximately body temperature, which is 101-102 degrees Fahrenheit for a calf. During cooler times of the year, bottles may need to be warmer when filled because when they are carried to the calf, they cool to the appropriate temperature. The best way to ensure the proper temperature is to temp a bottle right before putting it in front of a calf. Water and milk replacer should be accurately measured by weight and mixed thoroughly before being delivered to a calf. Too concentrated milk replacer can cause water to be absorbed into the intestines from the body, leading to diarrhea.

Electrolytes are critical in the treatment of scours. Dehydration is the biggest killer in scours cases and needs to be treated quickly. Calves can be dehydrated even if their outward appearance hasn’t changed. Once you identify scours, that is the time to begin treatment. If the calf is still standing and able to nurse mom or the bottle, give electrolytes between milk feedings. The calf needs to continue eating milk to provide them with the energy to fight off the disease. Electrolytes should be mixed according to the package directions and fed at body temperature, just like milk. As there are a variety of electrolytes on the market, you should work with your veterinarian to find the best solution for your individual needs. If a calf is unable to stand, call your veterinarian immediately. These calves need IV fluid therapy and often active warming. Pain is also a hallmark issue with scours and should be treated under the guidance of your veterinarian. Controlling pain helps calves recover from scours faster and can make them want to eat on their own again. Thermal support can also be an adjunct treatment to get calves feeling better faster. Keep sick calves in an area free from drafts. Because bacteria do not cause most cases of scours, antibiotics are of little value in treating the disease. At times, secondary infections occur, and an appropriate antibiotic protocol can be put into place by working closely with your veterinarian. Probiotics can also be of value when treating calf scours but are of lower importance compared to electrolytes and pain management.

It is ideal to prevent scours instead of treating it. Prevention starts with good cow management. Healthy cows produce healthy calves. Ensure cows are in good body condition, have adequate nutrition and minerals, and have a clean, dry environment for calving. You can also vaccinate cows with a scour vaccine before calving, allowing that immunity to be transferred to the calf through colostrum.

Colostrum management is the second step in preventing scours. Colostrum must be of good quality, clean, and fed as soon as possible after birth. A good rule of thumb is to feed one gallon of colostrum within six hours of birth. Colostrum provides many essential antibodies that help the calf build a more robust immune system. Sanitation of the calving area and the calf pens or barn are critical to reducing scour-causing pathogens. Everything in the calf ’s environment can be a source of pathogens. A calf will put almost anything in their mouth, so you must clean it if they have access to it. Feeding equipment must also be kept clean to ensure the healthiest milk nourishes the calf. As stated earlier, inconsistencies with feeding can lead to scours, making consistency the key to prevention. Feed calves at the same times every day, ensure they are receiving properly mixed and warmed milk, and provide 1.5 to 2 gallons of milk per day. Following all these steps will help you reduce the incidence of scours and give your calves the best start to life.