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Scours in cattle: Management, colostrum reduces scours

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Scours, a general term to describe diarrhea in cattle, can be caused by a wide range of pathogens. Viruses like rotavirus and coronavirus, bacteria, like E. coli, Clostridium and Salmonella, and parasites, such as Cryptosporidium and Coccidia, are some examples of pathogens associated with scours.

“We seem to be seeing more scours caused by Clostridials, which have classically been referred to as overeating disease, in the Sheridan area,” notes Veterinarian Shawn Tatman of Foothills Veterinary Service in Sheridan.

He also explains, “Scours can be caused by any of these pathogens individually, but a lot of times we see multiple organisms at work.”

Although mother cows may not show clinical symptoms, they often carry many of the organisms that can cause scours in calves, and when they defecate, cows transfer those organisms onto the ground.

“When we have an outbreak, organisms are oftentimes spread by the mother. Before a calf is born, it has been in a very clean, infection-free environment. As soon as it hits the ground, that changes very rapidly,” Tatman says.

When calves are exposed to the pathogens, their naïve immune systems can become overwhelmed, leading to the potential of getting scours.

Reducing risk

Although scours is often inevitable during calving season, producers can take steps to minimize the number of cases and hopefully prevent a full outbreak.

“It comes down to management and minimizing exposure to pathogens,” he comments.

One step that producers can take is spreading cows out during calving, ensuring they are not kept together in tightly confined areas.

“Sometimes, we don’t have the option to do that, based on facilities or the time of year. In those situations, maybe we can try to move those cows around,” he suggests.

A management technique known as the Sandhills calving system involves segregating calves by age groups and moving pregnant cows regularly to clean pastures, reducing the pathogen load in the environment.

“The Sandhills calving system is something that has been very successful for producers who have had the ability to do it,” he remarks.

Putting down fresh bedding is another possible management technique to reduce the pathogen load, as is disinfecting navels and treating cows with pre-calving vaccinations.

“If we can get scour vaccines into those cows pre-calving, that will allow the cows to produce colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk that goes into a calf, which is energy-rich and provides immune protection – and the calf can use that protection to combat and hopefully prevent diseases like scours,” explains Tatman.


Tatman encourages producers to make sure that calves are getting colostrum as soon as possible.

“It’s very important to get colostrum into those calves,” he says. “We have to have colostrum into calves within 12 hours, but I shoot to get it into them within one to two hours, if at all possible. It’s very important.”

Ensuring that calves receive adequate amounts is also important, even if it means providing supplemental amounts when necessary.

“Calves born in poor weather or that undergo dystocia are considered stressed, which places them at increased risk of developing scours,” Tatman says. “These stressed calves are already predisposed to have a tough go at life. We need to really put all of the factors we can in their favor.”

That first milk contains nutrients and antibodies that set calves up for success or failure throughout the rest of their lives, he adds.

“The more I’m around, the more I know there is value in getting that colostrum to the calves early and in adequate amounts,” he states.


If an outbreak does occur on an operation, it is important to keep the calves from getting dehydrated as it can make it very tough for them to recover.

“Those calves are losing a lot of liquid in the diarrhea. The mainstay of treatment for those calves is hydration. A lot of times, we give oral electrolytes,” he says.

Tatman tries to minimize antibiotic use and avoids using them in situations where they may be unnecessary, although in extreme cases, they can be administered to sick calves.

“If we can keep those calves upright and keep them going, usually fluid therapy is going to be adequate,” he explains.


Environmental stressors, such as cold weather and winter storms, can also increase the potential risk of scours.

“Cold weather causes cattle to congregate, which increases the pathogen load. Also, anytime we have stress, it reduces the calves’ immune systems, setting them up for the potential for those pathogens to take hold,” Tatman notes.

Scours can also be seen in older animals as well, although it isn’t as common.

“It predominates in calves, but we can see it in cattle post-weaning for the same reasons. Stress brings it out, and in my experience, we see more Coccidia and Coronavirus in the older age brackets,” he comments.

Once calves make it to weaning, their immune systems have strengthened, and they are usually better able to handle the pathogens.

“If we start to see a lot of scours, it could potentially be an indicator that there is a problem in the herd health program,” mentions Tatman.

Trace mineral programs or other nutritional elements may be worth investigating if producers experience a lot of trouble in their herd.

“I strongly encourage people to make sure they are at least talking to their vet. It’s very important to have that relationship, and a local vet will know what’s going on and what issues are common in their area,” Tatman comments.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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