Catch scours early to save young calves

Courtesy of David R. Smith, DVM / Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Newborn calves up to a month of age are the most susceptible to scours. It is most commonly exhibited by diahrrea.

BLACKFOOT — Pathogens and weather are the two big contributors to the incidence of diarrhea in calves, commonly known as scours.

“I usually don’t see diarrhea in calves until April,” said Tony Parsons, a Blackfoot Animal Clinic veterinarian. “That’s getting toward the end of the calving season when the pathogens have built up.”

The best defense is offense with the disease, he said.

“In both beef and dairy cattle, it’s keep calves clean and dry,” Parsons said. “If they get sick, keep them warm and keep them hydrated.”

Evidence of scours is a watery stool in the first month of life that can prove deadly.

“As the calving season goes along, the pathogens build up in their environment,” he said.

But there are ways to combat the disease.

“Some of the best research is through the Sandhill Calving Method,” Parsons said. “The way it works is that you calve out the first third of the herd then move the cows that haven’t calved to another pasture.”

The final third of the herd is moved to yet another fresh pasture.

“The big problem with this method is most places don’t have a spare 400 acres to move their stock around on,” he said. “Around here, they are often set up with a good calving barn.”

This method could require three barns.

The Sandhill Calving System keeps the calves separated by age, which helps keep the younger calves from being infected by older calves. The idea is to minimize both the disease load and newborns’ exposure to the disease agents until their immune systems have sufficiently matured to better withstand them.

“Getting to the calf early when you first see the ears starting to droop is important to its survival,” Parsons said. “If you can be vigilant with electrolytes, the calf can come out of it.”

Things get serious when the calf goes down and can’t get up.

A wet spring and the severity of the weather play a big role in calf survival.

“All calves need to get colostrum in the first 24 hours,” Parsons said. Colostrum contains antibodies or immunoglobulins (essential proteins) necessary to provide the calf with protection from disease. This immunity that the calf receives is known as passive immunity. Antibodies from the dam do not cross the placenta during pregnancy. Colostrum is in the first milk a cow produces.

Bacteria, viruses and parasites are responsible for the illness. Escherichia coli, Salmonella and clostridum prefringens are the usual strains of bacteria. Rotavirus and coronavirus, cryptosporidum and coccidia round out the causative agents.

“Our ranchers are an independent bunch,” Parsons said. “And they do a good job of caring for their animals. With scours, you keep the calf alive through the bout of the disease and they should be just fine afterwards.”

Treatments involve oral electrolytes, possible IV fluids and antibiotics

Calf diarrhea (scours) is the primary cause of death in calves from 2 to 30 days of age.

“I see infected calves that are two to three days old up to even four weeks old if they are on contaminated pasture,” Parsons said.