Your Reading List

Proper management can prevent scours

Animal health

Cow and calf in a field.

Most calf scour documents focus on treatment of calf scours and methods involved to eliminate an outbreak. But with the proper management, preventative measures have proven to substantially reduce all scours. Nothing is foolproof, but if certain measures are followed incidence of the disease can be dramatically reduced.

Certain management procedures should be avoided as they markedly increase the risk of a scour outbreak. Fostering of calves is a common procedure with twins, but purchasing calves for this purpose can be a recipe for disaster. If you absolutely must purchase a calf, do so from a beef herd which has a good management system, and is vaccinated against scours. Keep the pair isolated in a separate area for two weeks. The best strategy is not to purchase calves for fostering — the risk isn’t worth it.

The same applies to purchasing cow-calf pairs or heavily pregnant cows just prior to the calving season. Two scenarios can result. The calves from these new cows may start scouring as they are exposed to organisms on your farm. Or, the opposite can happen — your own calves scour from not being previously exposed to the organisms introduced by the new cows.

This is where maintaining a closed herd at least close to calving is a very good idea. The key is preventing the first case. Once it happens the organism is quickly seeded in the environment and if crowding occurs all in-contact calves become at risk.

Herds with a high percentage of first-calf heifers (more than 20 per cent) run a greater risk of scours for several reasons. Compared to mature cow colostrum, heifer colostrum is never charged with as many immunoglobulins against the scours organisms, mothering with heifers is more difficult and with more difficult births heifer calves are generally more stressed. Select good heifer bulls to minimize calving problems and always have several litres of good frozen colostrum on hand.

Some producers will drench most first-calf heifer calves with colostrum to supplement the heifer’s own colostrum. At least give colostrum to any stressed, slow-to-rise calves. Drenching with colostrum may take time but it could have huge benefits later in the calf’s life. Try if possible to calve heifers separate from cows. It makes them easier to watch and if any scours does start it can hopefully be controlled. Heifers mother up with calves a lot better when in a smaller group.


Scour vaccination should be mandatory in most circumstances, especially among first-calf heifers when there is past history of scours or in herds where crowding is an issue. We find any herd reaching 100 head or more can greatly reduce scours problem by vaccinating. This however, is not a panacea for sloppy management. Any calf no matter how well protected can succumb to scours if exposure is too great.

The calving area needs to be cleaned of manure from the previous year and preferably not have cows in it for more than 30 days prior to calving.

The manure allows a buildup of the undesirable organisms and this is exacerbated in the spring thaw when melting snow washes through the manure packs. Organisms are thus concentrated in the water pools. Keep the calving area as well drained as possible.

An isolation area must be planned for so any sick calves and their mothers can be immediately removed from the group and kept separate until no more diarrhea is evident. Always treat the sick calves last after the calving herd has been checked.

It is imperative to change your coveralls and dip your boots before going back to the main herd. A product called Virkon is an excellent disinfectant against bacteria and viruses and can be mixed in a boot dip. Farmers need to be aware they themselves can be the biggest cause of spreading scours around the farm.

Esophageal feeders have also been incriminated for spreading the disease. I have most large producers use separate feeders for giving colostrum and treating scouring calves with electrolytes. Also disinfect tubes and hoses between usages with the Virkon disinfectant.


On the nutrition side, keep cows within a condition score range of 2.5 to 3.5 at calving. This insures good colostrum and strong cows for quick deliveries. With exercise in the winter cows will be in better shape to calve quickly.

One study compared calf shelters and windbreaks, to barns, to nothing at all. Not surprisingly, the calf shelters and windbreaks caused the greatest reduction in neonatal disease. Even though barns may seem the best, the higher ambient temperature allows proliferation of the organisms. The calves are usually quite confined as well. There is no doubt a barn for obstetrical procedures and other treatment has its purpose, but calf shelters provide a stress-free environment, especially during a snowstorm.

Most scours outbreaks occur from management breakdown and then allowing the first case to spread. By following good management practices, calf scours can be kept to a minimum.

Roy Lewis is a Westlock, Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.

Roy Lewis is a Westlock, Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



Stories from our other publications