It is not uncommon for calves to encounter difficulties after birth. The largest issue seen in calves today is scours, which is the name for diarrhea in calves. Diarrhea is a disease of the digestive system, distinctively characterized by watery feces and frequent bowel movements.
Scours can be caused by one of three infectious microorganisms; bacteria, viruses and parasites. These infectious agents attack the lining of the calves' gut and cause water loss through the damaged gut wall. Calves can potentially be infected with multiple infectious agents at the same time.
Dr. Russ Daly from South Dakota State University Extension discussed the importance of "Knowing what germ producers are looking at when calves develop scours," during a recent iGrow radio network show.
When producers know what infectious agents are attacking their herd they can tailor treatments to kill the specific outbreak. When analyzing future preventive measures, pre-calving vaccination programs can be modified to target the infectious agents that their individual herd had during pervious calving seasons. Remember to always offer a balanced mineral program to mother cows prior to calving.
"Many interventions during a scours outbreak are the same regardless of the germ identified," said Daly. "Providing sick calves with fluids and electrolytes are important in treating all cases of calf diarrhea."
If a calf is strong enough to stand and suckle, offer oral electrolytes which keep acidosis at a minimal level. If a calf is down, oral electrolytes are not enough and intravenous therapy should be administered by a veterinarian. One thing to never do is mix electrolytes with milk, which could interfere with curd formation and cause an even stronger case of scours, due to digestive upset.
Daly said, "The only definitive way to identify the germs present in scours outbreaks is an analysis by a veterinary diagnostics lab. However there are some factors that producers can keep in mind; age of onset, color of scours and other substances such as blood and mucus."
Calves, during their first few hours of life, are exposed to thousands of organisms that all have their own incubation period. A calf's age at the time of scours may provide some clues as to what infectious agent is affecting the calf.
A very early life calf, 0-5 days of age, usually contracts infections from pathogenic E.Coli strains, type C. Clostridium perfringens and salmonella. Calves ranging from 4-21 days of age, could be affected by viruses such as Rotavirus and Coroavirus. From ages 7-28 days parasites such as, Cryptosporidium can be an issues and even coccidiosis, but this is usually never seen before 28 days of age.
"Color of scours to identify what specific pathogens are infecting the calf are not generally useful," said Daly. "The color is very dependent on what all the calf has been ingesting," stated Daly. " One exception does seem to exist, in that calves with acidosis due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances often exhibit a grayish tint to their feces - but this is not specific for an organism."
A calf that exhibits blood within their feces is usually indicating severe damage to their intestines. "Bloody stools usually point towards coccidiosis in older ( less than 4 weeks)," said Daly.
The largest cause of scours is from a lack of adequate intake of colostrum by the calf within the first few hours after birth. Colostrum contains high concentrations of protein antibodies. These antibodies are absorbed directly into the calf's bloodstream after colostrum is ingested. Colostrum is only available to the calf for a short amount of time and the calf's ability to absorb these antibodies is limited. The maternal antibodies are the calf's protection against infectious organisms during the first few weeks of life.
Many scours outbreaks are a result of overwhelming exposure to contaminated calving lots and barns. Always make sure to clean calving areas several times during calving season to reduce the risk of bacteria and viruses in the young calf's environment. Try to move cow-calf pairs out to a nursing pasture within 24-hours. This will reduces the pair's risk of contracting infectious agents.
If a calf does contract scours, consult with your veterinarian about which products are best to use in your situation. "Sorting out the possible causes of calf scours is always something producers should approach with help from their local veterinarian. With a general sense of the causes of scours in cattle, aspects of the disease such as treatment, prevention and control can be addressed," concluded Daly.