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Calf Scours Prevention and Management

Calf scours can be a major headache on both beef and dairy operations. In either situation, the underlying cause is typically inadequate colostrum intake or a dirty environment. Scours is often a bigger problem in spring calves because severe weather can lead to stressed animals in a muddy, cold environment.

Prevention is the best way to control scours. Because the infectious agents involved in scours are typically viral or protozoal (coccidia, cryptosporidium), treatment centers around supportive care. Maintaining hydration is the most critical part of treatment. Antibiotics are generally not necessary if the calf maintains a healthy appetite, has no fever, and behaves normally with a bright attitude. A depressed attitude or appetite indicate that damage to the gut has caused bacteria to enter the bloodstream. More aggressive treatment is necessary when this occurs.

Here are a few pointers to help guide management of this disease:

  • A clean environment and ensuring colostrum intake will virtually eliminate scours in young calves.

  • Beef calves need assistance if they have not nursed within the first six hours of life. Dairy calves should receive a gallon of clean, quality colostrum within six hours of birth — the sooner, the better.

  • Pasture environment can be improved by rolling out hay and watching for mud holes around feeders and waterers.

  • Beef calves born in the second half of the calving season are at much greater risk for scours because they are born into an environment dirtied by the older calves. These calves can be protected by moving later calving cows to fresh pasture and allowing them to calve away the older calves.

  • Consider vaccination at birth when management is less than ideal.

  • Continued milk intake is critical in scouring calves — fighting infection requires protein and energy. The young calf is born with minimal reserves, so continued intake is necessary for survival. Tube feeding may become necessary in weakened calves who are unable or unwilling to suckle.

When multiple animals are affected, a comprehensive management plan is necessary to minimize the impact on overall herd health. There are also less typical causes of scours, including E coli enterotoxemia, Salmonella, and gastric ulcers, that require different management. Contact your veterinarian early in the process to make sure intervention occurs in a timely manner.

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