Calf scours should be a top concern for a dairyman. Even when calves survive a bout of scours, future performance is diminished and the bills stack up. Economic loss is estimated between $50 per calf born to $200 per scouring calf.

“Scours is actually a clinical sign of a disease caused by many different bacteria and viruses infecting the lining of a calf’s small intestine,” said Dr. Mike Moore, professional services veterinarian with Novartis Animal Health. “Scours is highly contagious and can spread rapidly.”

Prior to onset, producers could see calves exhibiting a dry muzzle with thick mucus appearing from nostrils, very firm feces, a decline in feed intake, a tendency to lie down and a high body temperature. Once scours onsets, feces will be more watery, and may appear bright yellow or white. In some cases, blood and mucus may be seen in feces. Calves will exhibit signs of depression. Eyes may appear sunken. Skin may remain peaked when lifted. Abdominal distention may be present. Calves may become weak or collapse. The younger the calf, the greater the chance of death.

“Immediately isolate scouring calves if your facilities allow, and address electrolyte loss and dehydration with fluid therapy immediately,” Moore said. “Pathogens may not directly cause death of the calf, but will contribute to dehydration, electrolyte loss and acid-base imbalance, which is responsible for the calf’s death.”

Moore said the cause of scours is complex, and stems from calf management, nutrition, the environment and the presence of pathogens. Moore said producers can reduce risk by following these management strategies:

Provide quality colostrum — Quality colostrum begins with good nutrition of the cow during the second half of gestation. Proper immunization of the cow at dry off, including vaccinating for scours, passes antibodies to the calf in the first colostrum.

Up to 40 percent of calves do not consume enough colostrum, and are more likely to develop infectious scours. Colostrum should be fed within two to four hours of birth, with the same volume again four to six hours later. If milk replacer is used it should be added slowly to reduce digestive upset. Provide adequate protein and energy to allow the calf to produce optimal immunity.

Manage facilities — Environmental stress brought on by sudden changes in the weather (particularly cold, wet, windy weather) as well as cold, damp, drafty or humid calf hutches can increase the chances of scours. Keep hutch bedding clean and dry, and provide young calves with individual hutches to slow disease spread.

Train and limit staff — Different staff members have varying degrees of hygiene and handling methods which can lead to calf stress. Ideally, the same person should handle calves every day. Staff should always clean and sterilize feeding utensils and facilities. Workers should wash hands thoroughly and wear waterproof boots that can be washed and disinfected. Staff should always handle healthy calves before sick calves. Ideally, the worker treating the sick calves should not handle healthy calves.

“Although calf scours is a serious and costly condition, much can be done to minimize the risks through facility management, diet, immunization, genetic selection and management practices,” Moore said. For more information about scours prevention, visit