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Calf Scours

Treating calf scours is a time consuming, frustrating business and the first thing to remember is that even though you will do your best you may not save them all. One of the first questions to ask when a calf gets scours is “Is it a nutritional or infectious scour?” A nutritional scour is often what’s called a ‘happy’ scour. The calf will often look otherwise healthy and still have a good appetite, although not always.

Nutritional scours are usually the result of:

a sudden change of feed (like colostrum to milk or milk replacer)
· a sudden change in feed volume (like twice day feeding to once day feeding)
· or mixing problems with milk replacer.
Changing brands or types of milk replacer can also cause a nutritional scour. Usually giving the calf 24 hours off milk and replacing those feeds with good quality electrolytes is all that is needed to stop the scour.

Infectious scours like Rotavirus, Cryptosporidium, Corona virus, Salmonella and E.coli will normally cause a sick, dehydrated looking calf. Contrary to popular opinion it is not possible to diagnose which bug is causing the problem just by the smell and colour of the scour. Faecal culture is needed on at least three scouring calves in an outbreak situation to get a picture of what is causing the problem. Getting a diagnosis is important for several reasons:
1. Some of the treatments differ slightly for different bacteria or viruses.
2. Some of the bugs will infect people and make them sick, especially children. This happens more often than you might think and examples include Salmonella and Cryptosporidium infections.
3. Knowing what is causing the problem can help in forming a prevention programme for next season e.g. using Rotavec in the cows pre-calving.
The most important treatment for infectious calf scours is still fluid/electrolyte replacement. If the calf has stopped drinking then it needs to be tube fed. A 40kg calf that has lost 10% of its bodyweight in lost fluids will need 4 litres just to correct the dehydration. This level of dehydration is not unusual in scouring calves. Add in the normal day to day needs of about 4 litres and that calf needs 8 litres of fluid in 24 hours. A calf can only take in 2 litres per feed so that means, ideally, 4 feeds of fluids in 24 hours. In most cases giving the calf 3 feeds every 24 hours over 2 to 3 days will correct the dehydration, but remember that 3 is the absolute minimum number of daily feeds for a scouring calf, twice daily is too little. You can check the level of dehydration in the calf by gently pulling down the bottom eyelid and looking at the gap between the eyelid and the eyeball. In a normal calf there is almost no gap (check a healthy calf first for comparison) and as the calf gets more and more dehydrated the eyeball will gradually sink away from the eyelid.

When it comes to electrolytes you generally get what you pay for. The better quality products such as ‘Diarrest’ have ingredients which give a fast and slow release of energy as well as correct the major electrolyte and acid imbalances that occur in scours. Cheaper products only provide some basic electrolyte replacement and a short term energy burst. As a general rule, if the calf is sick enough to need tube fed then use a better quality product. If the calf is still drinking then you can fill a feeder between milk feeds with a more basic electrolyte product and let the calf drink adlib.
New research has shown that keeping the calf on milk during a scour episode may actually speed up the recovery process as opposed to having 2 to 3 days of straight electrolytes. This is due to the milk having excellent energy levels, some localised gut protection activity and the correct proteins and amino acids to aid healing and stimulate the calf’s immune system. A standard fluid replacement programme for scouring calves is outlined below:
Day 1: Electrolytes (am) Milk (noon) Electrolytes (pm)
Day 2: Milk (am) Electrolytes (noon) Milk (pm)
Day 3: Milk (am) Electrolytes (noon) Milk (pm)
An alternative approach would be to give the calf 3 or 4 feeds of electrolytes on the first day and then go onto the above programme for days 2, 3, and 4.

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