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Calf Scour Management

Thanks to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry for providing this great information!

Calf scours can cause a large financial loss to cow-calf producers. With scours, the intestine fails to absorb fluids and/or secretion, and the material is passed into the small and large intestines. These higher fluid levels in the manure result in a watery discharge. Death loss can be upwards of 50% or more in severe episodes. Scours is actually just the symptom of a disease that can be caused by many different bacteria and viruses. Many of the losses caused by scours can be prevented through good management practices.

What is Calf Scours?

Calf scours is the most common symptom of illness in young calves and can be caused by several different viruses, bacteria and organisms. Most often it is a problem in the first month of life. Viruses like the rotavirus (most common) and bacteria like salmonella and E.coli, as well as coccidian and other internal parasites can cause scours. When attacked by these infectious agents, the calf’s gut is still so immature; making it the weakest point of the calf’s system, the lining of the bowel is damaged and results in the loss of large amounts of body fluid into the gut. The calf is quickly dehydrated, electrolytes are unbalanced and energy reserves become depleted. A calf is approximately 70% water at birth, so the loss of body fluids through diarrhea produces the rapid dehydration. The younger the calf, the greater the chance of death.

Reduce the Occurrence of Calf Scours

There are several management strategies to help prevent scours from infecting your calf crop.

Calve heifers in a separate area from older cows. Their calves’ immunity levels are typically lower than calves from older cows.

Avoid wet calving barns and areas if possible. Try to calve on pasture if the weather permits. The ideal calving environment would be a fairly steep hillside pasture with a windbreak, accompanied by warm, dry weather. One of the primary causes of scours is a wet, muddy and cold calving environment.

• Provide portable calf shelters on pasture to keep calves dry and protected from chilling winds. It is also essential that these sheds be moved or cleaned out periodically.
If calving in smaller spaces, turn the cow/calf pairs out to a clean pasture area as soon as possible.

• Isolate any scouring calves and treat immediately. Clean and disinfect the environment. Early isolation is critical to help aid in preventing the spread of scours to other calves.

Have cows and heifers in good body condition, and on an appropriate nutrition program to help ensure calves are born healthy and strong.

Vaccinate herd six and three weeks prior to the beginning of the calving season. Follow label instructions. Don’t rely exclusively on vaccines, as they can’t be 100% effective if the calves are born in a muddy area that is already infected with diseases.

Make sure that newborn calves receive adequate amounts of colostrum.

How Do I Treat Calf Scours?

The immediate treatment and most important is to administer fluids, electrolytes and energy. Fluid is essential, but the fluid cannot be absorbed from the gut unless it contains electrolytes (salts) in proper proportions. Scouring calves should receive at least 10% of body weight of fluids and electrolytes if scouring is mild, and more if it is severe. Use a high quality electrolyte mixture administered with a stomach tube, twice daily.

Don’t mix the fluid and electrolytes with milk, as it will cause the milk to curdle and be of no benefit. Consult with a veterinarian on whether to use antibiotics, as some antibiotics can increase the severity of scours, and can cause muscle damage.

Read More on The Topic:

In this article you’ll find more information about causes and treatment of scours and how to adjust your management for further prevention:

Here, John Marble describes the benefits of calving later in the season to inspire you to move out of the cold wet winter to a milder season:

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. Thanks to Mr. Marple for the advice. It is not necessary to convince people as if proselytism were a main goal. It doesn’t usually work anyway, in my experience.

    One does wonder, however, how many resources–time, money, workshops–are used to help people treat problems that could be handled another way.

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