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What is scours costing your operation?

Bobbi Brockmann Published on 06 May 2014

newborn calf

When you look at the rising cost of replacement heifers, keeping calves healthy and productive before and after arrival is critical to the dairy’s bottom line. Too many calves die from scours each year, which is an expensive problem for dairy producers.



According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Dairy 2007 study, diarrhea and other digestive problems accounted for more than 56 percent of pre-weaned heifer deaths.

When a calf dies from scours, that’s a direct hit on a producer’s wallet, especially when you consider the cost to purchase and raise an animal to replace one that is lost. Heifer prices have been climbing, and depending upon the quality of heifer purchased, the price can range from $50 to $300 to replace a dairy heifer or $1,400 to $1,975 for a springer heifer.

The financial hit an operation takes when a calf dies is easy to comprehend because you see the loss of the calf immediately. What’s not so easily tallied is the financial loss a farm experiences when a calf gets sick and recovers.

Initially, you have the pharmaceutical and labor costs of treating scouring calves. NAHMS data shows that almost one out of four pre-weaned heifers had diarrhea, and nearly 18 percent were treated with antibiotics.

Other data shows that 20 to 25 percent of U.S. dairy calves develop diarrhea requiring electrolyte therapy before the calf reaches 21 days old. The cost of these treatments can vary based on products used, as well as duration of treatment, but the costs add up quickly.


Once a heifer improves, that incidence of calfhood disease decreases a heifer’s likelihood of surviving to calving. Research shows that calves with diarrhea within 14 days old were more likely to die between 15 to 90 days.

An analysis of calfhood records by Virginia Tech also showed that an occurrence of digestive diseases also caused a decrease in survival rate from calving through 305 days in first lactation and 730 days after calving.

Besides higher death losses, a heifer treated for scours can experience reduced productivity over her lifetime. Considering the cost of raising a replacement, those reduced production efficiencies add up.

According to Iowa State University, the cost to raise a heifer ranges from $1,661.50 to $2,260 from weaning to calving depending on feed or grazing method used. That analysis looked at a variety of inputs, such as feed, facilities and grazing, but those totals did not include labor.

With that investment, you expect those heifers to be productive additions to the herd for many years, but for heifers that had scours, that lifetime may be cut short or the cost of raising that replacement will go up due to delayed reproduction.

Research shows that calves treated for scours are 2.5 times more likely to be culled, and dairy heifers treated for scours are 2.9 times more likely to calve after 900 days (30 months) old compared to other heifers. Each month calving is delayed beyond the 22-month target can cost dairy producers $100 per animal.


When you multiply those losses over an entire herd, you see the true cost of scours adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.

Boost immunity
The good news is there are ways to prevent scour outbreaks, and boosting a calf’s immunity provides one of the best ways to control scours.

Calves are born without an active immune system and must rely on the consumption of antibodies for disease protection. Colostrum provides protection against E. coli, rotavirus, coronavirus and salmonella for the first seven to 10 days of life.

Typically, a cow provides those antibodies through colostrum that the calf ingests after birth. The colostrum carries the maternal antibodies into the gut, where the antibodies are absorbed into the calf’s blood stream. Some remain in the gut to neutralize bacteria and prevent diarrhea from developing.

However, relying on the cow for that colostrum, not just quantity but quality, may not always be reliable. You don’t always know if a cow or heifer will provide enough antibodies in her colostrum, and you don’t know the type of antibodies in the colostrum. On top of that, you don’t know if the calf will actually consume enough of that colostrum to provide protection.

To ensure calves receive those antibodies, producers need to develop a good colostrum management program because timing is everything with colostrum. The intestinal wall that allows a calf to absorb antibodies starts closing almost immediately after birth, so you must get colostrum into the newborn calf as soon as possible.

To ensure adequate, high-quality antibodies are given to the calf with the colostrum, consider supplementing with a USDA-approved antibody product to provide consistent immunity immediately after birth.

Unlike a vaccine, antibody products do not require a calf to react to that vaccine to develop antibodies, and antibody products can be fed without delaying colostrum.

Beyond boosting antibodies, scours prevention also includes reducing bacteria and viruses in the environment. While cleaning pens is important, don’t forget to sanitize equipment, especially colostrum-feeding equipment such as collection pails, bottles, nipples and esophageal feeders.

And those feeding calves need to wash hands and clean shoes. Humans spread these viruses as much as other calves.

If the calf’s environment at birth is kept clean and sanitized, then pathogen exposure is minimized, reducing the potential for calves to scour. PD

Bobbi (Kunde) Brockmann is a calf specialist and director of sales and marketing with ImmuCell Corporation.

While cleaning pens is important, don’t forget to sanitize equipment, especially colostrum-feeding equipment such as collection pails, bottles, nipples and esophageal feeders. Photo courtesy of Bobbi Brockmann.

bobbi kunde

Bobbi Brockmann
Calf Specialist and Director of Sales and Marketing
ImmuCell Corporation