The Cow-Calf Manager
Livestock Update, April 2004
John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, VA Tech
Scours Prevention Pays Dividends at Weaning
A variety of conditions can give rise to a scours outbreak in young calves. Weather, calving environment, sanitation, cow age, and cow nutrition can all affect calf scours. Producers who are aggressive in supplying fluids to calves and reducing spread of scours often are successful in saving a majority of calves. However, several studies indicate that the impact is far beyond calf deaths.
Recently, Montana researchers (Anderson et. al, 2004) reviewed 14 years of records on over 3600 calves. Their findings reinforced and clarified results of previous studies.
That last figure is somewhat surprising as most producers assume calves that had scours catch up by weaning time. The Montana researchers included $10 per calf treatment and labor costs in addition to the reduction in weaning weight in their economic analysis. The total economic loss per scouring calf that survived to weaning varied from $17.28 to $59.96. The average over the 14 years was $34.84 loss per calf with scours.
Key prevention strategies
Since calves that get scours lose money compared to healthy calves, producers need to focus on prevention. Nutrition of the cow in late gestation is important for production of high quality colostrums. Cows, especially 1st calf heifers, that receive too little energy or poor mineral supplementation during late gestation produce low levels of antibodies in their colostrum. Cows need to gain 1.0 lbs. per day in late gestation, and 1st calf heifers need to gain 2.0 to 2.5 lbs per day in the last 60 to 90 days before calving.
Calves need to absorb high levels of scour preventing antibodies in the first 12 hours after calving. This means they need to consume colostrum early and often. They should nurse within 4 hours after calving and continue to nurse frequently. Calves that are weak or chilled should be fed 2 quarts of colostrum with an esophageal feeder. Vaccinating cows with a scour vaccine may also increase the antibody content of the colostrum, but it must be administered about one month before calving.
Cows need to calve in a clean pasture. Cow-calf pairs should be moved within 3 to 7 days to a clean pasture. This keeps calves in a clean environment, and reduces their exposure to pathogens should scours occur. Cows and heifers should not calve in lots, calving sheds or calving pens. Despite efforts at sanitation, the pathogens that cause scours continue to build up with each use. Calving sheds or pens should only be used for animals that need assistance or have weak calves.
An excellent method is one used by one of my neighbors. He calves his heifers on a hay field then moves cow calf pairs once or twice a week to an adjacent hay field. The only time cattle graze those fields is during calving.
Avoid the use of round bale feeders during the calving season. Areas around round bale feeders concentrate manure, water, and pathogens especially during wet weather. As a result of this slop, cows udders become contaminated as well as increased direct exposure of calves to pathogens. Rolling out round bales or scattering square bale slices wastes some hay, but avoids concentrating manure and slop in the feeding area.
Finally, when scours occur, scouring calves and their dams need to be isolated from the rest of the herd until calves recover. Ideally, recovered calves and dams should be placed in another pasture separate from healthy cow-calf pairs for about three weeks after recovery. Then all cow-calf pairs can be placed in a single pasture. If multiple pastures are not available, the important aspect is to isolate scouring calves from the herd.
Careful monitoring of young calves combined with a good prevention program can greatly reduce the impact of scours in your herd.