Muddy February raises risk of scours

Dairy calf

Calving in late February can be advantageous — as long as you do not mind dealing with cold temperatures and have the quality of hay necessary to maintain good body condition on your animals.

Another advantage to calving in February is that the cold temperatures tend to keep flies away, mitigating eye issues with calves. The cold temperatures of February also keep the ground frozen preventing issues with calving in the mud, or at least they said it would.

Unfortunately, the weather in February this year seems as though it will be like the past few — wet and muddy. All of the sudden, the advantages of early calving do not seem to be as rewarding.

One of the concerns with this mud is calf scours. Scours is, simply put, calf diarrhea. It is a disease that has many different pathogens as the source having different interactions with the environment; it can also be referred to as a “disease complex.”

The pathogens can be bacterial, viral or protozoan. All of these organisms thrive in wet environments that have a high concentration of organic matter. While cases may require different treatments, they all have similar symptoms in the calf, severe diarrhea.

E. coli

One of the most common sources of scours is the bacteria E. coli. This bacterium is a coliform organism found in manure. In wet, muddy environments manure essentially inoculates the ground and spreads all over the area. The contaminated mud will then splash-up on the low-lying udder of the nursing cow and her calf will be exposed to it while nursing.

Mature animals have a well-developed immune system as well as an established microflora (organisms in their digestive tract) making them less susceptible to infection. Bacterial scours will typically infect the young calf in the first week of life.

Severe calf diarrhea is extremely dangerous. Take as an example the weight of a calf; let’s overestimate it to be 100 pounds. Now, let’s underestimate the weight of a cow at 130 pounds. That calf is approximately 7.5% the weight of the mother and it does not take much fluid loss to lead to the death of a calf.

The greatest way bovine livestock protect their young against scours is through colostrum intake of the calf. The calf will receive a boost of antibody immunity from the mother cow for the organisms that are present in that location (assuming the cow is not new to the location). This will work for all types of scours causing organisms such as: bacteria, viruses and protozoa.

Remember that environmental conditions of mud and manure will increase the likelihood for calf exposure to scours pathogens. Most scours problems will be seen in the first three weeks of a calf’s life. The earlier the calf develops the disease, the more dangerous that disease will be to the calf.


There are different scours vaccine available; remember that scours is a disease complex therefore the vaccines are only as good as the pathogens they defend against. There are E. coli, rotavirus, coronavirus, as well as Cryptosporidium (a protozoa bug). Consult a local veterinarian for the best information about your area.

The vaccines are given to the cow a few weeks prior to calving; timing and number of doses required are going to vary a bit depending on the type of vaccine and your vet. Typically, the vaccine is given in the last 2-7 weeks prior to calving. The idea is that the cow will produce a boost of antibodies that will be passively transferred to the calf through the colostrum. If the calf does not ingest the colostrum properly, the vaccine will not have helped the situation.


The environment is also crucial for calf health and scours prevention. As stated earlier, these pathogens thrive on wet, manure-infested mud. Changing the environment will make the pathogens harder to infect the calf. When doing so, keeping things sanitary is the key to preventing the disease.

Calve in a dry environment, provide high-quality feed and remove stressors such as over-crowding and noises. These actions will make the calf much more prone to proper nursing and colostrum intake for that passive protection. By keeping the calf dry and both momma and the calf clean, the potential of the pathogen to infect the calf will be reduced. Again, the first three weeks are a critical time for calf health and success.

That calf is your profit, and sometimes it takes a bit of an investment to ensure that profit. If calf diarrhea is observed, act quickly.


Check for signs of dehydration such as sunken eyes and prolonged skin tent when you pull up on the skin of the neck (should rebound back in less than two seconds for healthy calves). If the calf is nursing weakly or not at all, this is a sign of greater dehydration. A calf that cannot stand is a potentially serious sign of severe dehydration.

There are really two ways to rehydrate the calf: oral and intravenous. If the calf is mildly dehydrated and still has a good suckling action, oral electrolytes could be administered for quicker rehydration. If the calf is too weak to stand or suckle; intravenous therapy will be the best option for rehydration. It is critical to act quickly in these situations.

It does not take much fluid loss for a calf to die of dehydration; 14% dehydration can cause death in that small calf that probably weighs less than 80 pounds, especially with fluid losses. Consult your veterinarian for electrolyte dosages and ratios of milk to be given.


Once dehydration is controlled, antibiotics are warranted. Antibiotics will work on bacterial pathogens but not viruses. Even though the antibiotic will not kill the virus, it will help prevent secondary infections that can take hold during the calf’s weakened state.

Discuss the potential of scours on your farm with the vet; this will provide valuable information to make a quick and informed decision during an emergency, so take the time to do so. Scours prevention goes a long way — having a plan in place could make the difference in a calf’s life and your bottom line.

In the past few years, conditions have been favorable for scours in most of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania during the late-winter, early-spring calving season. Evaluate your risk, have a plan in place and keep records. These are the best things to do during these less than ideal times.

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