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Managing scours so they don’t manage you

Scours, the most common disease in calves, can quickly 
put you behind the financial 8-ball

Scours can cause a ‘wreck’ in a herd if not dealt with properly, says animal health expert Claire Windeyer.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Scours can put you in a financial hole in a hurry.

“For every percentage of the herd that you lose, the rest of the herd has to pick up the slack,” said Claire Windeyer, assistant professor in production animal health at the University of Calgary.

Producers who had relatively low calf mortality, around five per cent, only needed their calves to be 25 to 40 pounds greater at weaning to make up for the lost calves.

“If you have 15 to 20 per cent calf loss — which hopefully isn’t a common occurrence, but is where we get into some of those wrecks — the rest of your herd is going to have to weigh between 100 to 200 pounds greater, and that’s not going to be feasible,” she said during a recent Beef Cattle Research Council webinar.

To avoid that situation, keep a close watch for scours, she said. When a calf has scours, its feces are softer than normal consistency with a higher fluid content. The problem must continue for at least two days — one day “doesn’t really count,” said Windeyer.

Scours can be caused by a host of pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Often, more than one pathogen is present.

“When we are investigating these (cases), it’s not about the specific pathogens as much as it is about the risk factors that trigger the issue,” she said.

Older calves may catch scours brought on by coccidia, while younger calves may have E. coli.

“The point being that if you are talking to your vet about a scours issue, it’s important to tell them the age of the cattle affected. Keeping track which one you treat and how old that calf is may give some clues as to what pathogen it is, which may help target that control strategy a bit better.”

Humans are susceptible to some of the pathogens that cause scours, so producers should be diligent in washing their hands and not allow kids and seniors to handle suspect calves.

It’s the dehydration associated with scours that generally kills calves.

“We need to address the dehydration if we want to prevent calf mortality,” said Windeyer.

A dehydrated calf will have severely sunken eyes with space between the eyelid and the eyeball.

Calves that are mildly dehydrated with a strong suckle reflex can be treated with an electrolyte solution.

“It’s important to note that not all of the products are created equal,” said Windeyer.

Calves that can’t stand and don’t have a good suckle reflex are in need of intravenous fluids, and should be handled by a veterinarian.

There’s a misperception that all cases of scours should be treated with antibiotics, but they will not treat or cure all cases, because some of the pathogens are viral or parasitic.

“We need to manage dehydration more than the scours,” she said. “We do treat some of these cases with antibiotics, but that’s more about preventing the complications.”

In some instances, the gut lining of calves may become compromised and damaged by scours. Bacteria can then travel across the gut lining into the bloodstream.

“A third of scouring calves do end up with bacteria in the blood and some of those will become septicemic,” said Windeyer. These calves will need intravenous antibiotics, administered by a veterinarian.

Calves with scours should be kept warm and dry and need a source of energy to help them recover.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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