Calf caretakers know how quickly a calf can go from healthy to quite sick when challenged with scours. Decisions made at the first signs of illness can make a big difference in how quickly a calf recovers.

Veterinarian Joe Armstrong, an educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, recently developed a “Calf Scours Treatment Decision Tree” to help farmers evaluate each situation. He shared a basic rundown of the tool on “The Moos Room” podcast. This tool applies to beef and dairy calves and assumes that we are working with scouring calves in the first 3 to 4 weeks of life before coccidiosis is a concern.

Armstrong explained the three main causes of calf scours at this age are cryptosporidium, rotavirus, and coronavirus. E. coli and salmonella can be causes as well but the first three are more likely. Cryptosporidium is a parasite, and rotavirus and coronavirus are viruses, so antibiotics aren’t necessary to treat these cases of scours.

There are three treatments for these causes of scours:

  1. Supportive care — Make sure to keep the calf hydrated.
  2. Pain medication — Scours can be painful. Armstrong mentioned that if you have ever had crypto yourself, you know that it is painful. Pain medications can help get that calf back on feed.
  3. Never take away milk — Every treatment plan is in addition to normal milk feeding. The calf needs those calories to power its immune system, Armstrong shared.

The flow chart begins with the question, “Can the calf stand?” If no, the calf should receive intravenous (IV) fluids, such as lactated ringers or isotonic saline. If IV fluids are not an option, subcutaneous fluids could also work. These fluids need to be warmed for the best results.

The next question is, “Does the calf have a suckle reflex?” If yes, then the calf should be bottle-fed 2 quarts of warm electrolytes, given a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and treated with a long-acting antibiotic that spares the gut microbiome. If there is no suckle reflex, tube feed warm electrolytes, then give an NSAID and the antibiotic. For both cases, if the calf’s temperature is under 101°F, it should be placed in a calf warmer. After two hours, reassess the calf using the flow chart again.

If the calf can stand, move on to suckle reflex steps. If it can’t suckle, tube feed warm electrolytes. Give the calf NSAIDs and antibiotics, and place it in the calf warmer if its temperature is below 101°F. If the calf will suckle, bottle-feed electrolytes and give an NSAID. If the calf has a normal body temperature between 101°F and 103°F, antibiotics aren’t necessary. Above 103°F, give antibiotics, and if below 101°F, give antibiotics and place calf in the calf warmer. Calves with a normal temperature or fever can be reevaluated after six hours.

In cases where an antibiotic is given, these calves are prone to a respiratory infection. The antibiotic is used as a preventative measure.

Armstrong emphasized the importance of making sure calves are getting their milk and calories. If a calf does not drink from the bottle, he recommended that milk needs to be tube-fed.

As a reminder, this flow chart is not a replacement for consulting your veterinarian. They know your system best. Rather, this is a tool to work with your veterinarian and create a resource to follow on your farm. The flowchart is available on the UMN Extension website.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2023
September 4, 2023

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