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Save money by managing scours

Alyssa Dietrich for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 April 2018
young dairy calves

For decades, scours has been on record as the most common cause of death for preweaned dairy calves. Beyond the economic loss from death, scours increases treatment and labor costs, and reduces growth rates, thus affecting future production.

It has been determined that for each day a calf is sick in the first four months of life, it costs her an estimated 278 pounds of milk in the first lactation, and each pound of preweaning average daily gain is worth an estimated 850 pounds in the first lactation.



In addition, research from several universities has shown a correlation between high average daily gain in the preweaning period and increased milk yield in the first lactation. That means reduced weight gain due to scours not only increases costs in the calf period, but it can limit a heifer’s productivity in the future. Protocols for both scours prevention and the quick treatment of scours can help improve your bottom line.

Start scours prevention at birth

Anything the calf’s nose and mouth touch can infect the calf with a pathogen. Therefore, bedding, feeding equipment, the feeder’s hands, etc. should all be extremely clean to prevent scours. Colostrum is also critical to calf health because it is the calf’s initial and main source of immunity during her critical first few weeks. If not managed well, colostrum can also be a source of infection.

Calf or dry cow vaccinations can also be used as a prevention tool. Work with your veterinarian to identify the scours-causing pathogens at your farm, and develop an appropriate vaccination protocol to manage those effectively.

Limit direct contact between calves

Individual housing is the best way to prevent scours from spreading as it eliminates direct contact between calves. For farms that group-house calves, it is important to keep the age spread less than two weeks between calves in each pen if possible, as older calves may transmit pathogens to younger calves. Pathogenic scours can be caused by viruses, bacteria or protozoa. Rotavirus, coronavirus, E. coli, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens or cryptosporidium infections are common causes of scours in dairy calves. Proper sanitation of feeding equipment and housing is the best way to minimize calves’ exposure to these pathogens. Feeding equipment should be:

  1. Rinsed with lukewarm water to remove residues 
  2. Washed and scrubbed with soap and a brush using hot water
  3. Rinsed
  4. Disinfected with an appropriate disinfectant
  5. Rinsed and allowed to dry completely

Bedding should be removed from pens or hutches between groups of calves, and the pen or hutch should be allowed to dry completely. The use of a disinfectant in pens or hutches can also help prevent scours.


Keep feeding consistent

Pathogens are not the only reason calves scour; improper feeding practices can cause it as well. Consistency at each feeding is key in preventing scours. Milk replacer or whole milk should be monitored with a thermometer and fed at 100ºF to 105°F. Inconsistent levels of solids in milk replacer or whole milk is another scours culprit. Milk replacer should be weighed at each feeding to ensure calves receive the proper powder-to-water ratio. In the case of whole or waste milk, total solids should be monitored with a milk analysis device or refractometer. If total solids are inconsistent feeding to feeding, a milk balancer can be used to maintain total solids consistency.

Keep in mind that calves fed high volumes of milk replacer or milk will often produce loose manure that can be mistaken for scours. In this case, it is important to evaluate other factors like feeding behavior and rectal temperature to determine if a calf is truly sick.

Give scouring calves electrolytes; be cautious of antibiotics

Once calves have begun scouring, respond quickly so they can recover as fast as possible. Different pathogens have different modes of action for causing damage to the intestinal tract leading to scours, but all scouring calves have one thing in common – they are losing water and electrolytes. This leads to dehydration, abnormal blood chemistry and often a negative energy balance.

Too often, producers are quick to administer antibiotics without properly diagnosing the cause of infection. Antibiotics are not designed to treat viral or protozoal infections, and may delay recovery if used for those types of infections. In cases of known bacterial infections, work with your vet to design a proper treatment protocol.

In contrast to antibiotics, oral electrolytes are often underutilized or are administered too late. Many producers are giving up an opportunity to save money. Oral electrolytes are significantly less expensive than most antibiotics and are often the more appropriate treatment. The more quickly producers can intervene with electrolyte therapy, the better the results. This requires calves to be monitored during feedings to see if there are any decreases in drinking speed or how aggressively calves go for the bottle or bucket. I recommend administering electrolytes to those calves that just don’t look right or seem slower or less aggressive than normal.

Electrolytes should be fed with water, separate from milk replacer or milk. Mixing the two together could disrupt milk replacer or milk digestion, and could lead to abomasal bloat or even make the scours worse. Continue to feed at least one dose of electrolytes and water each day until the scours has stopped. Severe scours may require two doses.


Properly formulated oral electrolyte products have the ability to replenish lost fluid, balance electrolytes to normal levels, correct acid-base abnormalities and provide nutrients to return to a positive energy balance. Choosing a high-quality electrolyte product may require some research. Look for one that has the following:

  • Sodium concentration between 90 and 130 mmol/L
  • An absorption agent such as glucose, citrate, acetate, propionate or glycine
  • An alkalinizing agent such as acetate, propionate or bicarbonate
  • An energy source such as glucose or dextrose
  • An osmolality between 350 and 650 mOsm/L

If these items are not listed on the label of the electrolytes being used or considered, producers should inquire about them with the supplier.

Scours is a common and costly disease for many dairies. However, the cost of scours can be reduced with preventative management and early intervention with proper treatment.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Alyssa Dietrich is a calf and heifer specialist for Cargill Animal Nutrition.

PHOTO: Catching scours early or preventing it altogether is essential for raising productive replacement heifers. Research shows that for each day a calf is sick in the first four months of life, it costs her an estimated 278 pounds of milk in the first lactation. Staff photo.