Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Scours research supports enhanced colostrum feeding

Liz Adams Published on 24 November 2015
Cows and farmer

Raising healthy calves requires skill, commitment and attention to detail. It’s a management area that faces a great deal of pressure.

Replacement heifers do not “move into the black” in profitability until they enter their second lactation. Yet young calves represent the future of a dairy’s profitability. Research shows that achieving an adequate average daily gain in the pre-weaning stage of life is an important contributor to milk production in the first lactation and survival to the second lactation.



NAHMS data from 2007 shows that 56.5 percent of pre-weaned mortality is due to complications from diarrhea. Research has also shown that calves with a diarrhea event early in life have decreased average daily gain in the first eight weeks of life.

Young calves with diarrhea dehydrate quickly and can die from complications of hypovolemia and shock. Young Jersey calves are especially susceptible to rapid dehydration. If not treated early, these calves can be difficult to turn around with oral and intravenous fluids.

Common causes of scours

With the implementation of the Veterinary Feed Directive in December 2016 and increasing consumer scrutiny of the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, it is important to remember the common causes of neonatal diarrhea and how to prevent this detrimental disease.

Diarrhea observed between 5 and 7 days old is commonly caused by a pathogenic E. coli infection that the calf encountered on the first day of life. This is why it is important to maintain a clean maternity area, clean obstetrical equipment, dip the navel with strong iodine and feed a serving of clean, high-quality colostrum within the first two hours of birth.


Heat treatment of colostrum after harvest ensures that a calf’s first feeding has minimal pathogenic bacteria counts such as E. coli, salmonella, mycoplasma and mycobacterium. This is important because high bacterial counts in colostrum may reduce the absorption of essential maternal antibodies in the newborn calf.

Recent studies that compared heat-treated and non-heat-treated colostrums have found that heat treating colostrum not only reduced bacterial counts, but also improved the passive transfer of maternal immunoglobulin G’s into the calf’s bloodstream. Calves that received the heat-treated colostrum also tended to have fewer days scouring.

Another time in the calf’s life where we see a spike in incidence of diarrhea is at 9 to 10 days old. Diarrhea at this stage is most often caused by rotavirus or coronavirus. These viruses are shed in the manure of adult cows. That’s why it is important to maintain clean facilities and prevent the feco-oral transmission to newborn calves.

Vaccination for antibody-bolstered colostrum

Vaccinating pregnant heifers and cows prior to calving is a popular way to enhance the colostrum levels of antibodies to rotavirus and coronavirus. Calves that receive antibody-bolstered colostrum from vaccinated dams have fewer days scouring and shedding of the pathogenic viruses compared to calves fed colostrum from dams that were not vaccinated.

Timing of these vaccinations is critical to gain the desired response. The first two doses of vaccine should be given to a heifer at 10 to 12 weeks prior to calving with a booster dose three to four weeks later. For subsequent lactations, cows should receive an annual booster dose eight to 10 weeks prior to calving.

This vaccination strategy allows the cow’s immune system to respond to the vaccine. The cow is able to produce more specific immunoglobulin G’s to the rotavirus and coronavirus before partitioning these antibodies into the mammary gland four weeks before calving.


Extended colostrum feeding

It is has long been accepted that a first feeding of colostrum is essential to give the calf the best start in life. The results of recent studies show that there may be benefit of feeding milk containing colostrum beyond the first day of life.

One such study looked at giving the traditional first feeding of colostrum to calves and then feeding milk with added colostrum from cows hyperimmunized for rotavirus. This was done for the first 14 days of life compared to calves that were fed the same diet of milk without the added colostrum.

In this study, calves were orally challenged with rotavirus. The calves that were fed the milk spiked with hyperimmunized rotavirus colostrum showed significantly fewer clinical signs of diarrhea and had significantly less fecal shedding of rotavirus.

Another 2014 study looked at calf health benefits of feeding transition milk – the milk after the first milking of colostrum as it transitions from colostrum to milk – to calves in the first two to three days of life. Milk fed to these calves was not spiked with added colostrum but was the milk from a fresh cow as she naturally transitions from colostrum to milk. The study found that calves fed this milk for the first four feedings had lower odds of developing the clinical signs of ear droop or excessive eye and nasal discharge.

We know that fetal absorption of maternal antibodies is greatly reduced within 24 hours of birth. So what is the mechanism of these demonstrated added benefits of feeding colostrum beyond the first day of life? The antibodies and immune cells stay in the intestinal tract of the calf and act locally to help fight disease and potential pathogens.

A study from 1988 tracked the movement of antibodies within calves after oral colostrum administration. The antibodies were immediately absorbed into the bloodstream and then a functional portion was shown to move back into the gastrointestinal tract over the 10 days of the experiment.

More calories for immune system support

Cryptosporidium parvum is another pathogen that can cause diarrhea in calves. This parasite is in the environment, and like E. coli and rotavirus/coronavirus prevention, cleanliness is of the utmost importance. Cryptosporidium is passed from calf to calf by feco-oral transmission, and older calves will develop immunity to the parasite. This is why it is important to practice good biosecurity and not intermingle young calves with older animals.

A 2012 study looked at calf performance to a cryptosporidium oral challenge in two groups of calves: one group on a traditional nutritional plane of 20-20 milk replacer and the other group on a higher plane of nutrition.

The calves fed more mCal maintained hydration, had fewer days of diarrhea and had a greater feed efficiency compared to the calves fed a traditional plane of nutrition. The results of this study suggest that we need to feed more calories to our calves to help support their immune system as they face pathogenic challenges in their environment.

Calves need consistency

Nutrition always has to be considered when investigating a diarrhea problem in a herd. Calves are very sensitive to inconsistencies in their diet. When there are day-to-day fluctuations in their diet, calves will respond with scours or bloat and potentially death.

Milk solids, volume, temperature and timing need to be consistent between feedings. This requires daily monitoring with a digital refractometer and thermometer. If waste milk is an ingredient in the milk diet, it will change in total solids at each feeding and must be adjusted to a consistent number for the calves.

The temperature at which milk leaves the milk preparation area for calves will have to change depending on the ambient temperature, travel time and feeding time. As a rule, the first calf and last calf is fed milk at a temperature of 100 to 105ºF.


Complications from dehydration are what ultimately kill calves that have diarrhea. Treatment efforts should be focused on rehydrating the calf. Antibiotic therapy is often not warranted. Scouring baby calves can go downhill quickly. That’s why prevention is so important.

This includes maintaining a clean maternity pen, feeding clean high-quality colostrum from cows that have been vaccinated with a rotavirus or coronavirus vaccine and heat treating the colostrum to ensure cleanliness.

New research findings also support the strategies of feeding the calf transition milk or milk that is fortified with colostrum in the first days of life and feeding calves on an overall higher plane of nutrition to support growth and their immune system.  PD

PHOTO: Staff photo. 

Liz Adams
  • Liz Adams

  • Merck Animal Health