Beware of Calf Scours: How to Keep Your Herd Healthy

It’s calving season and we know how important your calves are to your herd! Maintaining their health is essential for herd wellness. There are extra precautions you can take to prevent any major health deficits among your herd. Please visit our website for the services we provide to assist you the best we can.

One of the most common causes of calf demise is calf scours, which is a clinical sign associated with several diseases characterized by diarrhea. It results in the loss of electrolytes and water in the calf’s intestinal system.  Keep in mind that calves are 70% water, so any sort of dehydration will severely impact a calf’s health. When a calf experiences scours, the diarrhea prevents the intestines from absorbing water, leading to extreme dehydration. But dehydration isn’t the only symptom resulting in mortality. Often, the calf loses an extreme amount of electrolytes, which can lead to acidosis, both of which are fatal.

You may be wondering how you can prevent any of your calves from scours. But, before we can get into that, you need a little background information about what causes them. There are two different types of scours: Noninfectious and infectious scours.

Noninfectious Scours

Non-infectious Scours are those unrelated to viruses, parasites or bacteria. Aspects such as diet, environment and poor post-birth care can all contribute to non-infectious scours.  Like any newborn animal, calves systems are very delicate and have to be closely cared for, especially after birth. This care should also extend to the mothers (or dams). Cows require a lot of nutrition even without being pregnant. It is critical to ensure that the dam has the best possible diet and environment, thus encouraging production of nutrient-rich colostrum. The better the nutrition of the dam, the better the colostrum.  Because calves are born with little natural immunity, colostrum intake is critical. It enables passive immunity to flow from the mother to its calf. This passive immunity has a shelf life of sorts. If the calf does not ingest colostrum within the first 24 hours of the life, the rate of effectiveness of passive immunity decreases.

Another cause of non-infectious scours is a poor birthing environment. These conditions include unkempt stalls, crowding and calving heifers in close proximity.

Infectious Scours

There are several ways calves may contract infectious scours, including exposure to bacteria, viruses, parasites, yeasts and molds. Within these specific units, we’ve picked out a couple specific examples that you should be aware of.

Escherichia coli (also known as E. coli) is the biggest threat to a calf’s health. E. coli thrives in unsanitary conditions.  Be the most alert for any E. coli possibilities in your herd. Salmonella can also endanger herd health. Should an outbreak occur, the infected herd members will need antibiotic treatment.  If any members of your herd get Salmonella, you will need antibiotic treatment for the infected cows.

Viruses also pose a threat to herd health. The rotavirus causes cell disruption in the small intestine, preventing healthy digestion and ingestion of nutrients. Early treatment is critical for the welfare of the infected calf, as its immune system will be less able to combat other diseases and illness. Another virus to be aware of is Bovine Virus Diarrhea (BVD Virus). Monitor your calves for oral lesions and diarrhea so that they can be treated early on. And as mentioned earlier, it is essential to treat any diarrhea symptoms as soon as possible.

While yeasts and molds are less concerning than viruses and bacterias, and are usually not a  cause of scours, they are secondary invaders and should be monitored and taken seriously.

For more information about noninfectious and infectious causes of scours, we recommend going here.

Scour Prevention Tips

There is no “one size fits all” for preventing scours, as only you and your veterinarian can determine what will best suit your herd. However, there are two important types of prevention: medicinal and managerial. Both are needed to maximize your herd health.

Medicinal prevention is herd-specific. We recommend utilizing a scheduled vaccination program.  This program should be discussed with your vet. Specifically for newborn calves, you need to ensure the maximum passive immunity through colostrum.

Managerial prevention is slightly more intensive, and includes factors such as nutrition, environment, and sanitation. It is essential to understand the nutritional needs of your cows, including the intake required for them to maintain a healthy weight. Nutrition goes hand in hand with sanitation –  both play equal roles in managerial prevention of calf scours. All members of your herd need a clean, dry environment to limit vulnerability of disease and scours. Specifically, it is critical to separate calving heifers from wintered heifers. We highly recommend the Sandhills Calving System. This method involves moving calving cows to a pasture. As they continue to wait to calve, the pregnant cows are moved to different pastures based on time. To learn more about this method, visit this website or ask us how to start incorporating it into your regular routine.


The most important thing to remember about treating calf scours is that dehydration, acidosis, and electrolyte loss should be the focus of treatment. The basic outline of treatment is very basic, although parts of it need to be herd-specific. To treat those three symptoms, there will need to be antibiotic treatment as your calf probably did not get enough antibodies when ingesting colostrum. Administration of oral electrolytes can also be used to treat the deficient calf. But keep in mind that certain fluids allow for scours to get worse. Talk to your vet about what course of action would be best for your infected calves to treat the illness as soon as possible.

Stop by our office to talk about the herd-specific prevention and treatment of calf scours – we want to help keep your herd scour-free! Call us at (307) 347-2781 to set up an appointment. We look forward to hearing from you!


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