Managing calf diarrhea

Make sure to get prompt treatment for calf scours as soon as a breakout begins.

April 11, 2023

2 Min Read
2-28-22 calves GettyImages-684820368 (1)_7.jpg

With many cow-calf producers at the peak of calving season, some also will be experiencing outbreaks of calf diarrhea.Typically, these calves are 1–3 weeks old and become dehydrated extremely rapidly. Most can survive with supportive care if received in a timely manner, but they are still at risk to some secondary bacterial infections, and in some cases death loss can be high.

The cold wet weather experienced by many can increase scours due to concentration of cattle in feeding and shelter areas and the muddy conditions. Once an outbreak of calf scours starts, it is very difficult to control in your current calving area because pathogen contamination overwhelms any protective immunity your calves have. Implementing a Sandhills Calving System is one of the best strategies to manage a calf diarrhea problem. However, most Midwestern operations do not have enough land resources to fully implement the Sandhills system.

A modified Sandhills system can be utilized that can help solve a calf scours outbreak. The Sandhill system requires you to move to a new calving pasture every 7–10 days, which works out to about eight different calving pastures for a 60-day calving season. With a modified system, I recommend moving to a new calving area every 20–30 days. This will not completely break a scours outbreak with its standard 10-day incubation period, but can make it more manageable.

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Additionally, calving does not have to occur on pasture. An example of a Midwestern modified calving system is to start with a calving barn in early March when adverse weather is still an issue, then in 20 days move to an outdoor lot, and finish off calving in April on pasture. No matter what system you use it still takes good calving management (including making sure calves receive colostrum), hygiene and prompt treatment to weather a scours outbreak.

A fact sheet on calf diarrhea is available from the ISU Beef Center. Contact your veterinarian for treatment advice and other prevention strategies.

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