What to do when your calves get the scours

Farm Forum

Even before the big “snow event” of last week, I was getting calls from herds in the middle of calf scours wrecks. Now, there really haven’t been that many – it’s been about an average year so far, but I expect that will be changing as our snow melts. The resulting muddy sloppy conditions usually mean a great environment for the germs that afflict baby calves in their first few weeks of life.

Many of these herds are well into calving, some almost done. And this seems to be typical. Normally our incidence of calf scours is pretty manageable or even non-existent early on in the season. The calves born then are more likely to be born onto pretty “clean” ground when it comes to scours pathogens. As calves inhabit the calving pen or pasture, and the cows have spent a month or two there, the level of pathogens (all of which can live a long time) finally hits a tipping point. Calves born later on in the calving season then are subject to a lot more of the germs in their calving area-enough to make most of them sick.

When producers get to the point when they’re calling me, it usually is an indication that they’re really grasping for answers. They’ve tried every treatment they’ve tried in years past. They’ve tried different vaccines and preventive measures, largely to no avail. I know that many of them are looking to me to come up with the name of the latest cutting-edge antibiotic or preventive shot that will be their panacea.

Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, there really isn’t any magic answer in a bottle. To be sure, certain antibiotics and preventive measures can be a real aid in some situations. But producers should first think of some simple, more management-type of interventions that will be as effective against one scours bug as much as any of them. What are some of those considerations that cattle producers should implement when they find themselves in the middle of a scours wreck?

1. Talk to your vet. Chances are you are not the only one with these problems, and local expertise is invaluable. Your vet can help you with decisions about diagnostics and recommendations for care and prevention.

2. Move the cows. If you’ve been calving in the same place all year, move the pregnant cows to a place that has not seen cattle for a long time. Maybe this is some corn stalks or bean ground near your buildings. If every cow calves in a calving barn, stay out of the barn. While this won’t be a cure for calves currently going through the scours, it will break the cycle for new calves being born, ensuring they are born on clean ground with minimal exposure to scours organisms.

3. Booster scours shots. If there are a lot of cows yet to calve, and it’s been a while since the cows have had scours vaccinations, it’s not a bad idea to run the cows yet to calve through again and give them a booster. This creates a higher concentration of antibodies in the cow’s bloodstream, which will then make their way into the colostrum that the calf gets right away after birth.

4. Antibody products at birth. If your veterinarian thinks it might help your particular situation, there are certain products that could be given to calves at birth that might help boost their resistance to some of these germs. Examples would be Clostridium perfringens antitoxins or antibody products against E. coli infections.

5. Check serum proteins. We know that colostrum is a critical step in helping calves fight off scours pathogens. Are your calves getting what they need, when they need it? Your vet can answer this question by taking blood samples from calves between 2 and 7 days of age and checking their protein levels.

It’s likely that more than one of these interventions is going to be necessary to stop a scours outbreak in its tracks. Since scours outbreaks result from many different factors working together, it makes sense that getting on top of one will probably involve several different strategies as well.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.