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Understanding scours: The basics for scours prevention

Shelby Roberts for Progressive Cattle Published on 18 January 2021
Cow and newborn calf

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. Proper planning prior to the start of calving can improve overall animal welfare, as well as saving a producer’s time and energy.

One of the keys to successful calving planning is the anticipation of any possible health challenges that could impact the calf and overall herd health. Management protocols designed to prevent disease exposure should be considered prior to the start of calving, alongside discussions with your local veterinarian about potential treatment protocols in the case of widespread disease.

One disease complex that producers should develop management strategies for is scours, also called calfhood diarrhea. Scours is the leading cause of early calf death. The occurrence of scours can impact profitability with both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs would include revenue loss from calf death, additional labor and medicine costs. Indirect costs would be reduced performance in calves that got sick but recovered. Scours is the result of inflammation of the intestinal tract that 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).

Implementing preventative management practices can prove to be an effective tool to prevent scours infections in a new calf crop. A few strategies to help control scours events include:

1. Management of calving areas

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

During the first month of life, minimize commingling herds after calving. This will prevent the spread of infection from apparently healthy, older calves to younger calves.

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 calves at a higher risk when compared to calves from older cows.

2. Isolate sick calves quickly

Many of the causative agents are contagious, so identifying and removing sick calves and their dams quickly is essential to preventing widespread infection. Quick removal from the herd will require knowing the signs of a scours infection. Diarrhea is the most easily identified symptom. Diarrhea is classified as loose, watery stool and may be brown, green, yellow, white or even bloody in color. Other symptoms to look for include weak suckling reflex, depression and dehydration, which can be observed as sunken eyes or abdomen.

3. Quick treatment

Once sick calves are identified, the priority treatment should be to address dehydration. Fluids and electrolytes need to be given to rehydrate calves. Diarrhea can quickly dehydrate young calves and, if left unaddressed, can be deadly.

4. Proper dam nutrition

Proper dam nutrition begins prior to calving. Meeting nutritional requirements, like energy and trace minerals, are necessary for the production of 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. 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 antibody transfer through colostrum, as well as calf vaccination at birth to support their naïve immune system.

6. Promoting gut health

Scours is the result of an unhealthy gut environment: an environment where beneficial bacteria become overpopulated by pathogenic bacteria. Supplementing the herd with yeast cell wall products, classified as prebiotics, can help promote growth of the beneficial bacteria and support healthy immune function.

The focus during calving season is production of healthy calves. Production of healthy calves starts prior to calving, and implementing preventive health management strategies can prove to be both effective and economical for producers.  end mark

Shelby Roberts
  • Shelby Roberts

  • Research Scientist
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PHOTO: Staff photo.