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Sticking to the basics starts calves on a healthy path

Bruce Vande Steeg Published on 09 October 2013

It is no secret dairy producers don’t like dealing with sick calves. They are young, vulnerable and treatment can be expensive.

Diarrhea, or what is commonly referred to as scours, continues to be the top challenge we face with preweaned calves. Preventing calfhood diarrhea should always be our first priority, but an effective preventive strategy also includes knowing when to utilize treatment.



For this, producers need to understand the causes, symptoms and treatment options for young calves. As always, work with your herd’s veterinarian to develop a treatment protocol for calves with diarrhea.

According to a 2007 survey by the U.S. National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), almost one in four (23.9 percent) preweaned calves had diarrhea and 17.9 percent of calves are treated with antimicrobials to combat these cases.

These statistics make diarrhea almost twice as common as respiratory disease in young calves, which impacted 12.4 percent of young calves in the nationwide survey.

Calf environment basics
I encourage producers to review their operation and identify the critical control points where calves can get sick. The following are some calf environment basics that will contribute to keeping calves healthy and growing.

1. Good colostrum on day one – Every newborn calf should receive four litres of colostrum (or 10 percent of their birthweight) with greater than 50 g per L of IgG concentration within the first few hours after birth.

To maximize IgG concentration, harvest colostrum from dams within one hour of calving. Sanitary milking practices contribute to colostrum quality, too – clean colostrum is considered 100 cfu per ml TPC.

2. Clean, dry and comfortable – Calf pens should be cleaned on a regular basis and replenished with bedding to provide calves a soft place to lie down.

If calves are housed outdoors and the weather is wet, give calves dry bedding to avoid the buildup of mud and manure.

3. Adequate ventilation – Air movement in the environment around the calf keeps the concentration of potentially harmful gases and airborne pathogens low.


This is especially important for calves housed indoors. For calves housed outdoors, a shelter free from excessive drafts should also be taken into consideration.

4. Water and feed access – Young calves should be fed adequate milk multiple times daily, as well as offered water and grain free-choice. Keep water clean and clear while making sure grain is dry and replenished as needed.

The damaging effects of diarrhea
While we may make attempts to do everything right with calves, diarrhea still does occur and can cause mortality if it is not addressed.

Diarrhea in neonatal calves can be traced back to two main issues: nutrition and pathogens. Nutritional cases often occur when there is a stressful change of diet or environment.

Examples of this may include lack of adequate nutrition, not enough milk fed, a new type of milk replacer, the switch from whole milk – even the stress of vaccination or dehorning can spiral into a sick calf.

Pathogenic sources of diarrhea may include E. coli, Salmonella and Cryptosporidium. These pathogens are usually contracted from a farm’s environment or shared between calves.

Physiologically, diarrhea is the disruption of the normal transfer of nutrients across the gut wall. Pathogens that cause diarrhea erode the epithelium or lining of the gut, and this is how electrolytes are lost.

Because of demands of protein and energy, diarrhea challenges the immune system and impacts a calf’s ability to make antibodies or white blood cells.

In addition, young calves do not have enough energy stored to deal with the disease, so rapid weight loss is common, all at a time when weight gain is a key success factor of future performance.

The stress of diarrhea is magnified when we add a less-than-ideal environment. Hot weather, cold weather and wind can all drive down a calf’s ability to fight disease.

When to intervene
Identifying cases of scours as early as possible is essential to help calves rebound from the stress of being sick. Common symptoms include:

• Watery diarrhea
• Depressed appearance
• Sunken eyes
• Arched back

Calves with diarrhea are losing water and electrolytes rapidly – their gut wall is inflamed and it is painful. Replacing these lost electrolytes is a common practice.

There are several commercially available electrolytes for calves facing scours. As I mentioned earlier, always work with your veterinarian to develop a protocol for scours that works best for your operation.

When selecting an electrolyte product, producers should consider the multiple symptoms calves are facing. A good formulation will combine anti-inflammatory properties to reduce pain and swelling in the digestive tract, along with nutritional supplements to get calves back to normal as soon as possible.


Producers should also consider the ease of administration and if it is soluble in milk and water, which calves are already familiar with and consuming.

Measuring success
Work toward achievable goals to reduce the impact of diarrhea in your young calves. This can be done through keeping track of morbidity (sickness) and mortality (death).

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) publishes Gold Standards to give producers metrics to strive for. The target for sickness due to diarrhea is found below:

Morbidity (sickness) due to diarrhea

1. 24 hours to 60 days old: < 25 percent
2. 61 to 120 days old: < 2 percent
3. 121 to 180 days old: < 1 percent

Mortality (death) for all calves

1. 24 hours to 60 days old: < 5 percent
2. 61 to 120 days old: < 2 percent
3. 121 to 180 days old: < 1 percent

Preventing or reducing diarrhea in young calves can lower treatment costs and set calves up for a strong future in your herd.  PD

Dr. Bruce Vande Steeg is a professional services veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc.

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Bruce Vande Steeg