There comes a time in every farmer’s life when everywhere you turn, there are sick animals. It seems like you have one sick animal and then bam, days later it infects the rest of the newborn herd. Being knowledgeable in what to look for, how to treat and most importantly how to prevent sickness from over taking your herd, can offer you peace of mind, at least on some level.

What Causes Scours?

 The main cause of scours cases, upwards of 95% of the cases, are caused by a virus or parasite in the environment. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites can be shed by “healthy-looking” cows through their fecal matter. These viruses include rotavirus, coronavirus or cryptosporidium, which can be detrimental if they infect a calf under 3 weeks of age. 

Some other causes of scours cases can include the nutritional status of the dam during the latter half of the gestational period, or her age. The nutritional status of the calf matters, if a calf is under fed-they can develop scours. Things like the amount of time that they spend in one area or having many calves at one time in an inadequate space can lead to the spread of cases. Having cold, wet, windy weather can make the viruses, bacteria, and parasites survive longer in the environment. If there are issues with sanitization practices not being up to par. Also if you are not adhering to proper immunization protocols. Even the genetic makeup or the number of calves infected can all affect the number of cases you encounter.

Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company

How to Diagnose? Calf Signs of Scours

There are some common things to be on the lookout for when caring for your new calves, and if you notice something that doesn’t look right, you can get that calf the treatment they need before you have an epidemic on your hands. Below is a chart of signs to be on the watch for:

Normal CalfSick Calf
Bright and alertDepressed and lethargic
Upright earsDroopy ears
Clear eyesDull, sunken eyes
StandingLaying down or staggering when trying to walk
Normal breathing rateFaster breathing rate with an increased effort
EatingLack of desire to eat or not eating
Stools are semi-formed to loose and sit on top of beddingStools are watery and run through bedding, there may be no color difference unless there is blood
Begin to look bony as their fat reserves begin to metabolize

These signs can last anywhere from 1-2 days or up until 2 weeks. Without the proper treatment the infected calves can die.

Healthy Calves

Treatments for Scours

Since we know that dehydration is what will kill a sick calf, the number one priority it to make sure that they are getting enough electrolytes, water, and colostrum/milk depending on the age and needs of the calf. This will not only correct the dehydration that is occurring but also restoring the acid/bases levels back to normal and help replenish the salts lost. Electrolytes must be mixed correctly, if you are leaving them in a too concentrated form, it can make scours even worse! Electrolytes can be administered both orally and intravenously. Typically, oral administration of electrolytes is given to a calf who can stand and is still alert. They are given via a tube feeder that has been designated for electrolytes ONLY. You will feed 2-6 quarts of the electrolytes per day depending on the severity of the scours. You can divide this into two or more feedings. If your calf is too weak to stand and lethargic, you will need to administer the electrolytes by an IV.

Other treatments include providing pain relief, antibiotics, extra nutritional support-please refer to your vet’s recommendations. You will want to provide extra bedding, shelter from the elements if the weather is cold. You don’t need them suffering from cold stress as well. Try to isolate the sick calves from the rest of the herd to minimize the spread of pathogens. Practicing proper biosecurity is critical for preventing the spread of disease. Make sure your employees are maintaining proper hygiene, so they can avoid getting sick themselves.  And, if your employees are sick, they should NOT be working with healthy or sick calves.

How to Prevent Future Cases of Scours

Now, that we reviewed what scours is, what to be on the look out for, and how to treat infected calves, we can look at how to prevent future incidences of scours. Prevention begins before the calf is even born. Typically healthy dams produce healthy calves. You should ensure that your dams are healthy, with adequate nutrition, proper vaccinations, and has a clean, dry environment. Having the proper vaccinations prior and during gestation can influence the antibodies found in the colostrum which can aid in passive transfer of those antibodies. Also, it is highly important that you maintain a clean and dry calving area to minimize accumulation of moisture. Remember, pathogens like moisture.

Preventive measures to take once a calf is born includes several factors. It is vital that every calf born receives high-quality colostrum with in the first hour of life. We recommend 4L at the first feeding and then a second feeding of 2L approximately 6-8 hours after birth. Next, you will want to make sure you are separating the calves by age to prevent the passage of infectious agents from calves that are a bit older than the newborns. You also want to make sure you are adhering to your vet’s recommended vaccination protocols. Your farm’s target should be to have less than 2-3% of your calves born per year to develop scours.

With all of this being said, it is a good time to review your colostrum management, hygiene, vaccination, calving, and sickness prevention measures. Reviewing your protocols regularly will help you to identify a problem before it starts or becomes an epidemic.

Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company