A Calf Scours Prevention and Treatment Checklist

Published on: 11:34AM Mar 16, 2010

By Travis Thayer, DVM, AgriLabs

Calf scours are an ever-present challenge to producers raising calves. They can devastate a dairy’s future livelihood in a very short period of time. No farm, big or small, is without risk of having calves break with calf diarrhea.


There are several different potential causes of calf scours, including nutritional and infectious causes (viral, bacterial, protozoal), but following these basic guidelines will help against all types, regardless of cause.  


Consult your veterinarian for more information on what’s provided here, and to design your own farm-specific scours prevention program.


1)     Get high-quality IgG antibody (colostrum or colostrum replacer) into the calf quickly! For average-sized Holstein calves, most experts recommend 4 qt. of colostrum soon after birth, or a single dose of a colostrum replacement product (defined as containing at least 100g of IgG/dose).  Small Holstein calves, or breeds with generally smaller calves, such as Jerseys, may require less.  Consult your veterinarian for recommendations on colostrum management or colostrum replacer products for your calves.


2)     Test colostrum quality before storing colostrums. The most common way to do this is to use a colostrometer. Discard colostrum that does not pass. Work with your veterinarian to develop standard operating procedures for testing, harvesting and storing colostrum.


3)     Discard bloody colostrum or colostrum from a cow with a known disease, such as mastitis or Johne’s disease. While blood in the colostrum does not always mean the cow has mastitis, blood is an excellent food for bacteria, which allows existing bacteria in the colostrum to multiply rapidly and make calves sick. Likewise, bacteria that cause mastitis and other diseases like Johne’s can be present in the colostrum and make calves sick.


4)     Use a scour-prevention vaccine. There are several vaccine products on the market that, when given to the cow during the dry period, increase the amount of antibodies in the cow’s colostrum, helping to provide stronger protection. Ask your vet about these products and how they might fit into a dry cow vaccine program.


5)     Don’t stop feeding milk to sick calves! Research has shown that calves need the energy from continued feeding to be able to fight infection. While it may seem like a good idea to “rest the gut,” it is not necessary, and can make it harder for calves to fight off and recover from infection.


6)     Treat dehydrated calves with electrolytes. Calves can quickly lose fluids and crucial electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, and they often need treatment beyond regular milk feedings to replace these nutrients. There are many electrolyte products available, and not all are of the same quality. Consult your veterinarian for the best product for your program. Note that if calves are too sick to stand on their own, oral electrolytes alone may not be adequate, and the calf may need intravenous fluid therapy.


7)     Use antibiotics ONLY as recommended by your veterinarian. Antibiotics are a great tool that, when used properly, can greatly increase success with scours treatment and prevention. However, used improperly, they may do more harm than good, and with all of the undeserved negative media attention that animal agriculture has gotten recently, antibiotic use is under more scrutiny than ever. There is no better resource than your vet to help you choose the most effective program.


8)     Consider natural remedies that save calves and reduce antibiotic use.

a.     Research has shown that egg yolk antibodies against specific scours pathogens can prevent and treat scours very effectively, often without any antibiotic treatment.  Chickens are vaccinated against a specific disease, and the antibodies from the egg yolks are collected and fed to calves in milk or milk replacer. 

b.    Probiotic bacteria - Adding “good” intestinal bacteria to the calf’s diet can help to promote good gut health and occupy spaces that pathogenic organisms need to use to infect the calf, effectively “blocking out” the bad bugs.


Calf diarrhea is a complicated disease, and it is not possible here to discuss all aspects of this serious risk to calf health. Use these tips as a guideline to start discussions with your veterinarian about your customized calf health program.


After obtaining a B.S. in Microbiology and a DVM Degree at UC Davis, Dr. Thayer practiced dairy production medicine in California’s Central Valley. He joined Agrilab’s technical services group in June 2005.


This column is part of the Dairy Today eUpdate newsletter, which is delivered free to your inbox every Tuesday morning. Dairy Today eUpdate provides the latest in dairy markets, policy, management and production, and news. Click here to sign up.