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Combating Calf Scours

Ruth Wiecmann
for Tri-State Livestock News

Ranchers are burning the candle at both ends this time of year keeping an eye on calving cows to make sure the calves arrive safely. Once those babies are on the ground, the worry doesn’t stop; now the concern to keep them healthy is constant. Calf scours is a prime cause of apprehension.

Even though the symptoms may seem similar, scours have several distinct causes, and accurate diagnosis is key to appropriate treatment.

“When scours shows up in younger calves, in that two-to-five-day old age range, it’s mostly likely caused by e-coli,” said Bleaux Johnson, DVM, with West River Veterinary Clinic in Hettinger, North Dakota. “Antibiotics treatment is warranted, with sulfa drugs, neomycin, terramycin and others. Electrolytes to correct dehydration are also a good idea, and IV fluids can be administered if necessary.”

Scours in calves in the one to two week age range can also be bacterial but are more often viral, Johnson said.

“They can be caused by rota-virus, or corona virus (not the same as COVID 19) and we don’t have a specific treatment, the body develops its own immunity to viruses. Vaccinating the cows pre-birth can be beneficial in preventing a problem in the calves. Always provide TLC and keep them hydrated, and antibiotics are still a good idea. They won’t kill the virus but they can help prevent secondary infections.

“Scours showing up later, around three weeks of age, are likely the result of a protozoa, such as cryptosporidium, salmonella, or coccidia. Again, supportive measures to keep the calves hydrated and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections are routine care.

“Clostridium, also known as ‘overeating sickness’ is another cause of scours in older calves, and it is pretty easily combatted with a producer’s choice of a full seven-way shot at birth or the C & D shot specific for clostridium. It’s also covered in Scour Guard and Scour Bos shots given before calving starts.”

All of these kinds of scours are environment related and weather related; cool, wet weather will breed more problems than warmer, drier weather. A clean environment will breed fewer problems than those manure-filed lots that have had calves in them all spring.

Louis Hoff spent years ranching west of Bison, South Dakota, and spent most of those years fighting cryptosporidium in his calves every spring.

“Crypto lives in the soil, like coccidiosis does,” Louis said. “A calf will pick it up from a muddy bag or from licking the ground as they sometimes do. Once it started going through the calves it would get worse and worse. The first calf to get it would usually have a pretty mild case but as calving progressed and it moved through the herd it got pretty nasty.”

Louis eventually tracked down some remedies from the late Dr. Martin Nold, DVM, of Gettysburg, South Dakota, which included a special probiotic paste.

Dr. Nold started practicing in the Gettysburg area in the late ‘50’s and developed several of his own remedies to help his clients’ livestock. His family still runs his business, Nold Animal Supply, in Gettysburg, and Louis still uses their probiotics on his calves; even though he moved his cows and family to Wisconsin several years ago to be closer to his wife’s family, the scours moved with his herd.

“We still had the same problem, although with a smaller herd it was not quite as rampant,” he said. “The last couple of years I put the cows on a chelated mineral and in spite of very sloppy conditions we had less trouble with scours than we did before.”

Louis’s nephew Ethan Wiechmann (this writer’s brother in law) runs cattle on the home place near Bison, and he has also used high quality mineral supplementation to improve the calves’ resistance to crypto. He also makes sure to keep cattle off the calving ground over winter so that his pens are cleaner going into calving.

“Prevention works better than treatment,” Ethan said. “A good mineral program and clean ground have made a big difference, and we really don’t see much trouble with scours anymore.”

Although most operations don’t have sufficient pens or pastures, Louis mentioned the Sandhills Calving System as being beneficial to preventing widespread outbreaks of crypto and other scours in calves. This method, as documented by University of Nebraska Lincoln, involves moving the cows that have not yet calved away from the pairs every week to ten days, so that newborn calves are not exposed to any pathogens in the manure of the older calves.

But nothing can take the place of a strong immune system.

Dr. Johnson said that maternal health in the cow herd was paramount to a calf’s healthy immune system. Besides scour guard shots for the cows prior to calving, Johnson said they have a number of options for producers wanting to boost their calves’ immunity early on, from vaccines to probiotic paste that can all be given at birth. But nothing will replace keeping the cows healthy and well fed while they are carrying those calves.

“A good mineral program and clean ground is the best cure for scours,” he said. “If mom is deficient, the calf will be deficient, and there’s a direct relationship between a healthy mineral balance and the body’s ability to build antibodies against disease. Prevention is far more effective than fighting a problem after it starts. Make sure your cows have good nutrition: adequate protein and energy intake, and quality mineral. Keeping your cows in good shape will give your calves the best colostrum and the most protection against sickness in the milk. All the shots in the world can’t fix poor nutrition.”


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