Scours has long been a major health issue for most calf raisers. Calves can scour anywhere from day one up until they are weaned at 8 weeks of age, making health challenges resulting from scours the leading cause of mortality and morbidity in calves. According to the National Animal Health Monitoring Dairy Study more than 56 percent of all death loss prior to weaning results from scours.

Scours is a particular challenge for many calf raisers because finding a consistent and reliable prevention and treatment protocol, with the array of products available in today’s market, can be a daunting task. That’s according to Devin Hyde, a calf and heifer Specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition, located in Minnesota.

Calves can get scours from a variety of pathogens and one thing is for certain, when that happens the effects they may experience include electrolyte loss, dehydration and increased risk of death once dehydration sets in, says Hyde. This is compounded by the fact that newborn calves are born with very little energy sources to fight off disease and infections.

One of the best things calf raisers can do for calves at the onset of scours is provide an effective electrolyte system to properly re-hydrate the calf and restore its negative energy balance.

There are several factors to consider when choosing an oral electrolyte solution; here are four characteristics to look for.

  1. Quick and easy administration – An electrolyte should be ready to give in warm water (110-120 degrees F) at the first sign of scouring. No catheter should be necessary for giving an oral electrolyte. Hyde recommends choosing a product that is palatable and encourages the calf to drink free-choice before resorting to using an esophageal tube feeder.
  2. Supplies sufficient sodium concentration to correct fluid loss – Sodium is the primary factor in increasing extracellular fluid volume. The optimal level of sodium concentration in an oral electrolyte solution is 90-130 millimolar per liter.
  3. Provides agents that will facilitate absorption of sodium and water, and able to correct metabolic acidosis – Look for glycine and dextrose, or glucose, as well as alkalizing agents such as acetate, propionate or bicarbonate. In order for sodium to be absorbed into the small intestine, a neutral amino acid (such as glycine) should be used. When considering which alkalizing agents are most effective, research by Dr. Geof Smith at North Carolina State University would show that acetate and propionate produce energy when metabolized, whereas bicarbonate does not. Acetate and propionate have also been shown to stimulate sodium and water absorption into the gut, as well as inhibit the growth of Salmonella and other bacteria.
  4. Provides the calf with sufficient energy to correct hypoglycemia – Hypoglycemia indicates a shortage of glucose in the blood; but can be treated by restoring the blood glucose levels to normal by ingestion of glucose (in electrolyte) and balanced meals (milk). Hyde advises to never withhold milk when treating with an oral electrolyte. Milk will provide nutrients that will give the calf energy to use towards supporting its immune system and growth. If the calf refuses to nurse, it is OK to skip one milk feeding after administering electrolytes; however, the milk feeding should be resumed within 12 hours, notes Hyde.

While oral electrolytes are most commonly used for treatment of the effects of scours, Hyde often recommends that calf raisers consider using oral electrolytes proactively for:

  • Onset of dehydration
  • Stress brought on by hot weather
  • Pre-shipping calves
  • Receiving protocols
  • Prolonging water from freezing

While navigating through oral electrolyte choices, it is important to understand what electrolyte products can and cannot do. Electrolytes are not created equal and it can pay dividends to pay close attention to product details. “Making an informed purchasing decision will pay off for the health of your calves, as well as your total operation,” says Hyde.

For more information, contact Devin Hyde at (507) 226-5126, email or visit