Scours in Beef Calves Prevalent this Spring

Farm Journal logo

A K-State veterinarian provides tips for preventing and treating the No. 1 neonatal disease in calves.
By: Katie Allen, K-State Research & Extension News

Although many beef producers experienced more than the usual number of hypothermia cases in calves born this year due to several days of sub-zero temperatures, scours is still the No. 1 neonatal calf disease producers will fight year after year, according to K-State veterinarian Gregg Hanzlicek.

Hanzlicek, who is director of production animal field investigations for Kansas State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said scours has been a particularly common problem this spring. It is a disease caused by bacteria, viruses or protozoans, which leads to diarrhea and dehydration in calves.

Scours is considered a management disease, he said, because beef producers must understand the disease and do their part to prevent it through colostrum protection in their calves and environmental sanitation practices. If scours is present in the herd, producers should identify and treat the problem to prevent calf, and financial, loss.

Understanding scours
The two bacteria involved in causing scours are E. coli and salmonella, Hanzlicek said. Two viruses, rotavirus and coronavirus, and two protozoans, cryptosporidium (crypto) and coccidium, also can cause the disease.

"Except for salmonella, the rest of those organisms are probably on every single cow/calf operation in the United States," he said.

Hanzlicek said it might be a good idea for producers to obtain a manure sample and send it to a lab to find out what organism or organisms are causing the scours.

"Two of those organisms, salmonella and crypto, are zoonotic, meaning humans can pick them up from the calves," he said.

If salmonella or crypto are involved, producers will have to be extra careful when they take their clothes or boots into the house after treating calves, as they could risk getting the disease themselves or passing the disease on to their family.

Diagnosing the disease and getting electrolyte fluids in the calves quickly is important to keep calves from becoming dehydrated, Hanzlicek said. Fluid treatment is necessary, regardless of what organism is causing the scours. Checking on calves at least once per day, if not multiple times per day, finding sick calves and intervening with fluids in the initial stages of scours will help save calves and benefit producers in the long run.

"When we’re talking about scours in calves, what kills the calf is dehydration," he said. "It does take the organism to initiate the scours, but what really kills the calf is that they become dehydrated, and multiple organs start to shut down."

Sometimes it might be hard to recognize calves that need help, Hanzlicek said, but if producers find a calf that is slow and lethargic, they can do an easy test by pulling the skin off the neck and then counting how many seconds it takes for the skin to flatten.

The skin should snap back flat within about a second, he said. If it is closer to two, three, four seconds or more, the calf is mildly to moderately dehydrated. Even for mild cases of dehydration, the calves are going to need two quarts of an appropriate electrolyte solution at least twice a day. Producers should make sure not to over-drench the calf, though, by giving the calf too much volume of the solution at one time.

"You can drench as many times a day as you want to, but you never want to give more than two quarts of the electrolyte solution at one time," Hanzlicek said.

He said producers should ask their veterinarian about what electrolyte product to use, as there are many commercial products available. He would recommend just a few of the more than 40 options he is aware of on the market today.

One of the ways producers can assess if they are getting ahead of the dehydration is to study the calf’s urination, he said. Frequent urination indicates the producer is giving it the proper amount of fluids.

Producers also should keep the calf with its mother while doing the fluid regimen, Hanzlicek said.

"We used to think the milk nourished the bacteria, viruses and protozoans," he said. "We found that it doesn’t. Taking the calf off the cow makes the calf weak, because our electrolyte solutions are low in energy. Those calves need their mother’s milk."

Colostrum protection is important for calf health for many reasons, including preventing scours, Hanzlicek said. Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cow that contains essential nutrients. Calves are born with an immune system, but no immunities, or protection from environmental factors.

"It is important that they consume colostrum from their mother in that first two to six hours after birth to be protected from a lot of diseases," he said.

There are colostrum supplements out there, he said, but in many cases by the time the producer uses the supplement, it’s too late to save the calf.

But, regardless of how well that calf is protected with colostrum, Hanzlicek said, if the environment is dirty and contains any of the organisms that cause scours, the calf can still get scours. Producers should keep the calving area as clean and free from manure as possible.

Another option is following the Sandhills Calving System, which originated in Nebraska, he said.

"In that system, you move the pregnant cows to a new pasture from cow/calf pairs," Hanzlicek said. "It’s a little more complicated than a simpler system ranchers have used for a long time very successfully, which is the opposite—moving the pairs out of the calving area every day. That keeps the calving area from getting contaminated with those organisms."

A scours prevention vaccine, given to cows prior to calving, is only beneficial if the producer is practicing environmental sanitation and making sure the calves are consuming colostrum, he said.

To learn more about scours, or to find out how to submit a manure sample for scours testing go to the K-State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory or call 785-532-5650


Latest News

White House Drought Relief Working Group to Address Western Water Crisis

Interagency effort will coordinate resources across the federal government to bring immediate relief to irrigators, Tribes, and western communities.

Cargill, Sysco Partner On Sustainable Grazing Project

Sysco and Cargill will partner with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to help ranchers tackle the impacts of climate change and improve grasslands and wildlife habitat through cattle grazing.

Switzer Ranch Receives Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award

Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer along with their children, Sarah Sortum and Adam Switzer, own and operate Switzer Ranch, recipient of the 2021 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award®.

Profit Tracker: Spring Rally For Cattle And Hogs

Cattle and hog feeding operations are experiencing the highest market prices since before the pandemic began more than a year ago. Hog margins were positive for the 11th consecutive week.

Tyson Announces Support for U.S. CattleTrace

Beef industry efforts to develop a voluntary animal traceability system gained significant traction today as Tyson Fresh Meats becomes the first beef processor to invest in membership to U.S. CattleTrace.

Bull Breeding Soundness Evaluations

Before bulls are turned out this spring a complete breeding soundness evaluation (BSE) should be conducted by a veterinarian, including a physical examination, reproductive tract examination, and semen evaluation.