Scours in beef calves prevalent this spring |

Scours in beef calves prevalent this spring

Calves dealing with scours need extra hydration but should still be kept with their mothers whenever possible. Early intake of colostrum is important in preventing scours. Staff photo

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 number-one 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

“Except for salmonella, the rest of those organisms are probably on every single cow/calf operation in the United States.
Gregg Hanzlicek, Kansas State University

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.

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.

–K-State Extension

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