Calf Scours - Frequently Asked Questions

Subscribe to our free E-Newsletter, "Agri-News" (formerly RTW This Week)Agri-News
This Week
 Calf Scour Management
Calf scours can cause a large financial loss to cow-calf producers. With scours, the intestine fails to absorb fluids and/or secretion, and the material is passed into the small and large intestines. These higher fluid levels in the manure result in a watery discharge. Death loss can be upwards of 50% or more in severe episodes. Scours is actually just the symptom of a disease that can be caused by many different bacteria and viruses. Many of the losses caused by scours can be prevented through good management practices.

What is calf scours?
Calf scours is the most common symptom of illness in young calves and can be caused by several different viruses, bacteria and organisms. Most often it is a problem in the first month of life. Viruses like the rotavirus (most common) and bacteria like salmonella and E.coli, as well as coccidian and other internal parasites can cause scours. When attacked by these infectious agents, the calf's gut is still so immature; making it the weakest point of the calf's system, the lining of the bowel is damaged and results in the loss of large amounts of body fluid into the gut. The calf is quickly dehydrated, electrolytes are unbalanced and energy reserves become depleted. A calf is approximately 70% water at birth, so the loss of body fluids through diarrhea produces the rapid dehydration. The younger the calf, the greater the chance of death.

What are some things I can do to reduce the occurrence of calf scours?
There are several management strategies to help prevent scours from infecting your calf crop.
  • Calve heifers in a separate area from older cows. Their calves' immunity levels are typically lower than calves from older cows.
  • Avoid wet calving barns and areas if possible, try to calve on pasture if the weather permits. The ideal calving environment would be a fairly steep hillside pasture with a windbreak, accompanied by warm, dry weather. One of the primary causes of scours is a wet, muddy and cold calving environment.
  • Provide portable calf shelters on pasture to keep calves dry and protected from chilling winds. It is also essential that these sheds be moved or cleaned out periodically.
  • If calving in smaller spaces, turn the cow/calf pairs out to a clean pasture area as soon as possible.
  • Isolate any scouring calves and treat immediately. Clean and disinfect the environment. Early isolation is critical to help aid in preventing the spread of scours to other calves.
  • Have cows and heifers in good body condition, and on an appropriate nutrition program to help ensure calves are born healthy and strong.
  • Vaccinate herd six and three weeks prior to the beginning of the calving season. Follow label instructions.
  • Make sure that newborn calves receive adequate amounts of colostrum.
  • Don't rely exclusively on vaccines, as they can't be 100% effective if the calves are born in a muddy area that is already infected with diseases.
How do I treat calf scours?
The immediate treatment and most important is to administer fluids, electrolytes and energy. Fluid is essential, but the fluid cannot be absorbed from the gut unless it contains electrolytes (salts) in proper proportions. Scouring calves should receive at least 10% of body weight of fluids and electrolytes is scouring is mild, and more if it is severe. Use a high quality electrolyte mixture administered with a stomach tube, twice daily. Don't mix the fluid and electrolytes with milk, as it will cause the milk to curdle and be of no benefit. Consult with a veterinarian on whether to use antibiotics, as some antibiotics can increase the severity of scours, and can cause muscle damage.

Basic Concepts for Cow-calf Herd Health Programs

Prepared by Ag-Info Centre, Alberta Agriculture & Forestry
Share via
For more information about the content of this document, contact Hernan Ortegon.
This document is maintained by Brenda McLellan.
This information published to the web on February 5, 2004.
Last Reviewed/Revised on December 14, 2017.