Rapid management of affected calves can help reduce the consequences of calf scours

1 December 2015

Don't let scours knock growth rates.

Maximising growth rates in pre- and immediate post-weaning calves is crucial if heifers are to be reared to calve down at no older than two years old, and so reduce total production costs.

Roxanne Winstanley, National Account Manager with Farm-O-San, a division of Trouw Nutrition GB says that in addition to feeding an appropriate diet based on sufficient quantities of high quality milk replacers to encourage high growth rates, it is vital to reduce the impact of problems such as scours which will knock growth.

“Calves scours remain a widespread problem on dairy farms,” Roxanne comments.  “It is not unusual for the incidence rate to be 10-30% of calves being affected with scours in the pre-weaning period.  The average cost of treatment is around £40 per calf and mortality rates remain high.

“The cost of treating a case is the tip of the iceberg.  Calves affected by scours will suffer a delay in reaching bulling weight and produce less in their first lactation.  The scour pathogens damage the villi in the gut, reducing the calf’s ability to absorb nutrients.  Consequently, they will never be able to grow as fast as a healthy animal.”

As viruses and protozoa are the major causes of infectious scours, Roxanne says it is vital that calves receive sufficient quantities of good quality colostrum to help build immunity.  She also stresses the importance of strict hygiene routines.

“Calf pens should be cleaned and thoroughly disinfected between each calf or batch of calves and they should be well-bedded, with bedding regularly refreshed with clean, dry straw.  As most infections come from contact with dung from infected animals, take all steps to minimise the risk of faecal cross-contamination.”

Regardless of what preventative measures can be taken, she says it is impossible to eliminate scours so it is essential to look to minimise the impact of cases.

“Scouring calves can lose up to five litres of fluid each day, a combination of water and the minerals salts essential for normal body function.  With scours, it is the dehydration that kills the calf.  The loss of electrolytes reduces the ability of body tissues to retain water, thus aggravating the dehydration. 

“The top priority in scouring calves is to provide them with sufficient liquid and electrolytes to replace that lost in the faeces and to stem the flow of fluid loss. The next priority is to supply additional sources of readily digestible energy.  Any supplement should include electrolytes, energy and also ingredients that have a positive effect on slowing the rate of gut transit.

“The quicker rehydration is carried out, the shorter the duration of the scouring incident, potentially leading to less damage to the villi and a smaller growth rate check.”

Keeping scours in check is a key element of the calf management protocols followed by Andrew Furnival who farms near Loggerheads, Shropshire.  Looking to bring heifers into his 200 head herd at around 2.25 years old, he is keen to exploit early calf growth and wean calves at 100kg.

Heifer calves are taken off the cow within 12 hours and as soon as they have had sufficient colostrum.  They are then fed whole milk for the first week.

Calves are initially kept in individual pens but some larger pens for up to eight calves will be used depending on the number of calves being reared from the all year round calving herd.  All pens are disinfected between calves and regularly bedded down.

Calves then move onto milk replacer.  They are bucket fed twice a day with a target intake of 2.5 litres.  Solid feed is introduced from two weeks old and they have access to adlib barley straw.

Calves are typically weaned at 12 weeks old but Andrew prefers they make the weight rather than weaning based solely on age.

Scours are not a major problem but when animals are affected his policy is to get in quickly and nip it in the bud.

“We tend to get white scours and with a bucket fed system you can identify calves where there might be a problem because you can spot as soon as they go off their feed.”

Any scouring calves are fed Rediar, a dietetic feed from Farm-O-San.  It is formulated to stabilise water and electrolyte balance in scouring calves to help reduce the economic consequences of scours.  It contains natural pectin, which in the intestine forms a gel which slows the rate of gut passage while a probiotic helps maintain the bacterial balance in the intestine.

“As soon as we spot a case we take the calf off milk altogether and feed Rediar mixed with water for two days before moving onto a half milk, half Rediar approach provided there are signs that the scour is clearing up.  I am loathe to leave them off milk for too long as I want to avoid a growth rate check.”

Roxanne Winstanley concludes: “Prompt action can help reduce the impact of scours and increase the prospects of heifers calving in at under two years old.”

For further information, contact the Trouw Nutrition GB Farm-O-San Team.