Farming Tips and Advice – Videos and Blogs from Tommy the Vet

Ten tips for calf scour

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Calf scour an old story but the theme is the same!
On a cold Sunday evening driving home from a calving I got a call from a concerned farmer. Tommy he said, I’m worried about one calf and several others seem to have scour. He told me he had seen a calf sick that morning and now this evening that calf was down with three more scouring also. I wasn’t far away so I duly told him to expect me shortly. When driving out to the farm my mind wandered to a conversation me and the farmer had 4 months ago. He had been working hard on fertility over the last 2 years and now was expecting over 80% of his cows calving in the first 6 weeks. While this is a huge achievement on the fertility side it meant that he was going to have more calves than ever in a very short period of time I pondered this large number of calves in a short time contributing to a problem.

Getting out of the car I met the farmers wife, a dramatic lady at the best of times. She was manager of calves and prided herself in healthy thriving calves. The worry was visible and palpable when I talked to her. I assured her that I would answer the 100 questions but we needed to be systematic about problems like this before we started to panic. One step at a time, firstly examine the sick calves and try and make a diagnosis. To keep her busy and give me some breathing space I sent her for hot water to heat a drip.

The farmer himself was in the shed he was tubing fluids into the other three calves and also checking for other scour cases. The first calf was about 10 days old was down dehydrated and very sick. The other three calves were reasonably bright but all had a profuse watery yellow scour. The wife rounded the corner at speed with a basin of hot water to heat my drip bag. She asked me ‘where in the hell did this scour come from tommy, you know how meticulous we are with our calves’. She was close to tears which always reinforces with me how important these animals are to their owners. I assured her we would have more answers shortly as I had taken 4 samples for snap test. The snap test within five minutes with a high degree of accuracy would give me a good indication of what was causing the scour.

With the drip running and all eyes on me we awaited the snap test results. To my relieve I had a fairly conclusive diagnosis all within fifteen minutes of being on the farm.
All four cases were positive for rotavirus scour. This is a viral scour agent which affects the lining of the intestine causing a malabsorption diarrhoea which can be quiet severe. It can often be cows which are carriers of the virus in their dung to start with. However when calves ingest these virus they start to produce millions of them after about three days of being infected. You get problems where calves immune systems are depressed or the level of infection gets so great it overwhelms the calves immune system.

I explained this year they had more calves than ever and what had happened was this virus took hold and now could spread through all the calves quiet rapidly. We needed a plan, so we agreed to reconvene in the morning following treating the four cases that night. I asked them to save colostrum from a freshly calved cow. I made one more request, that was they set up a sick pen in the machine shed and remove all the sick calves to reduce the chances of spread to other calves.

On arrival in the morning to my disappointment the collapsed calf had died but the others 3 had responded well to treatment. There was 2 new cases both of which were again positive on snap test for rotavirus. I explained we would focus on consistent routines for a longterm strategy, mainly on colostrum, hygiene, housing, nutrition and vaccination. I blood tested some calves to check passive transfer between (2-10days 0ld). We also checked 2 colostrum samples for quality. We agreed stocking density in calf sheds had surpassed what normally was acceptable. Also due to the increase in numbers hygiene in calving pens and the calf house wasn’t as good as usual. Feeding was good but feeding utensils and teats needed more regular disinfection. The isolation pen although in its infancy, was working well for the sick calves.

Due to the fact we had a diagnosis of rotavirus we decided to vaccinate the next/last 80 cows to calve with a rotavirus vaccine. This would take 3 weeks to work but helps by creating antibodies in cows which she can pass onto the calf through colostrum. This was a long term plan.
Traditionally on farm they used fluids and oral antibiotics for calf scour. I explained that for the treatment of a viruses antibiotics where useless but rehydration was critical. We picked a good quality electrolyte to be fed 2x 2 litres in warm water between milk feeds, we also used an astringent and b12 injection. All sick calves were to go to the new sick isolation pen.
I was to return in a couple of days, to assess progress. Also all sick calves were to remain on milk.

Like the quick assembly of the sick pen when I returned in a few days everything had been done. All calving/calf pens where disinfected and cleaned thoroughly. Then calf pens had been cleaned out and disinfected (no power-hose was used to avoid aerosols in the shed). The sick pen were no longer sick and there was only one new case. A disinfection point had been set up at the door of the calf shed and the wife was telling me she had banished himself from calf duties. She was the boss no doubt, of the calf shed that is. The bloods for passive transfer indicated that some were below normal, she admitted with the large numbers she hadn’t been as diligent as usual about colostrum. With a definite look of assurance she now said this had been rectified. As an action to reduce pressure bull calves were separated and being sold much earlier also.

It never ceases to amaze me of many things on farms, but when people apply themselves and science the results can be tremendous. They lost no more calves and the scour settled completely within 10 days of starting. Admittedly there was a very tired exhausted couple but I assured them their efforts had meant they saved many many calves. Calf scour requires rapid action short term but more importantly long term controls to prevent new cases. One thing is get a diagnoses early and take action fast!

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