Cattle Healthline: Prevention Is Worth More than a Pound of Cure

March 26, 2011 01:45 AM

DanGoehlAs spring calving progresses, it is time to prepare for the adversity that comes with it. Calf scours is one of the issues that we begin to deal with as we get deeper into the season. This can be a frustrating problem for both veterinarians and producers. Often, the best way to correct a calf scours problem is management, and not medication.

Some of the main pathogens that cause baby calf scours are E. coli, rotavirus, coronavirus, clostridia, Salmonella and Cryptosporidium. Sometimes we can tell which of these is the possible problem by the age of the calf when clinical signs are exhibited. For instance, we know the E. coli usually appears in the first week of life. This is due to the fact that this particular species of E. coli cannot exist in the intestines of an older calf because of changes that occur in the lining of the intestine as it ages.

Control measures. Treatment of scours is often the same, regardless of the cause. The most important component of treatment is rehydration and correcting electrolyte imbalances in the calf. In a perfect world, those electrolyte abnormalities would first be measured and then the fluids balanced accordingly.

In the real world we live in, we most often use commercial formulations of electrolytes to help balance this out. Fluids can be administered either orally or intravenously, depending on the severity of the illness. It is sometimes astounding to see the response one can get from running warm intravenous fluids to a dehydrated calf with a low temperature. Most often, antibiotics of some kind are also administered.

There are multiple calf scour vaccines available, but the gold standard prevention measure is to control environmental contamination. The Sandhills Calving System, developed by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, provides an effective means to do this. Very briefly described, this system provides multiple grass traps to calve in. As some cows have calves, the cows that have not had calves are moved to a new paddock. The animals that contaminate the pasture are the young calves, so by moving the cows that have not calved to paddocks without babies, we eliminate the contamination.

As we get further along in the calving season, with more calves born, the amount of contaminants in the environment goes up. It is preferred to move the calves every seven days into a fresh paddock. But we often find ourselves trying to strike a balance between per-fection and the world we live in. In most instances, it is not practical to implement this system to its fullest extent. Any
degree to which it is implemented is helpful. It can be prudent to take steps such as unrolling hay in different areas or anything else that can be done to keep calves from congregating in the same area.

Other preventive measures not to be overlooked are the proper management of the cow. By properly immunizing the cow and making sure the newborn calf gets adequate colostrum, we can help the calf get a healthy start to life. Proper nutrition also plays a large role in the ability of the cow to produce colostrum and raise a healthy calf. Scours is definitely a disease where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Dan Goehl, DVM, and his wife own Canton Veterinary Clinic in Canton, Mo., working with stocker and cow–calf beef operations. He is also a partner in the management and marketing of beef cattle. E-mail questions and comments to

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