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Scouring Calves in the Dairy Herd

 By Paudie Hyland, Bimeda Commercial Veterinarian

Diarrhoea is the biggest cause of neonatal calf mortality in dairy herds. Good husbandry is the key to reducing the incidence of calves getting scour, to reducing the severity of the symptoms and mortality rates in affected calves.

Most dairy farmers select for easy calving sires to minimise the stress and damage to the cow. This gives the added benefit of easing the calf’s journey through the birth canal and thus reducing the stress on him and giving him a better chance to fight infection.

The calving environment should be clean and calving should be supervised where possible. Intervention is advisable if the calf is not born within a maximum two hours after the water bag or hooves appear.

The cow’s udder and the environment are the two primary sources of infection for the new born calf. It is now considered best practice by many advisers to remove the calf from the calving pen after birth, at the latest before the calf attempts to stand. The immediate new borne calf’s abomasum is susceptible to microbial infection. Therefore, avoiding scour causing pathogens at this stage is critical. The new born calf’s stomach is ideal for the absorption of whole immunoglobulins or antibodies. These antibodies are in abundance in the freshly calved cow’s colostrum and are the first defence that the calf receives. However, the ability of the calf to absorb colostral antibodies is short-lived. It is recommended that a typical Holstein calf should receive at least three litres of colostrum in the first 4 hours of life. Most calves will drink from a clean bucket and teat shortly after recovering from birth due to a strong suck reflex. If the calf fails to suck, colostrum can be introduced by using a stomach tube. This first feed is a vital defence against the scour causing bugs that the calf will inevitably come up against even in the most hygienic of farms.

It is now recognised that following on from first feed the calf needs approximately 15% of its body weight a day for the first five days in milk or good quality milk replacer in order to grow and maintain a healthy immune system. This amounts to six litres daily of milk for a 40kg animal.

We now accept that good husbandry at calving and proper nutrition are vital for keeping calves healthy and keeping disease processes such as diarrhoea minimised.

Other priorities for the farmer should be clean bedding, refraining from mixing batches, suitable housing and good biosecurity including good on farm disinfection points.

Common causes of infectious diarrhoea in the calf 

Age of animal                  

Causal Organism

1-7 days

E. coli, Rotavirus, Coronavirus


Cryptosporidium parvum

10-20 days


21-56 days



By following basic principles the farmer will be ensuring that the chances of severe outbreaks of scour in his herd are minimised.

Despite best practice, most farmers will have to deal with the occasional scouring calf or outbreak in a season. A milk scour, as the name suggests, is caused by too much milk or milk substitute intake. Milk scour is usually self-limiting and the animal can remain in good form while it recovers. Infectious scours are much more serious for the farmer. Regardless of the pathogen, the biggest cause of mortality is not the pathogen itself, but the resulting loss of fluids and electrolytes. Therefore, the vital treatment is extra electrolyte feeding or Oral Fluid Therapy (OFT).


  • must be palatable
  • must rehydrate
  • must correct acidosis
  • must provide energy

Continue feeding milk during the diarrhoeic period in addition to electrolyte feeding. Results have shown that calves that receive milk and electrolytes recover faster and have lower mortality rates than calves fed electrolytes alone. There are a few electrolyte products such as Bimeda’s Boviferm Plus that can be fed at the same time as milk which eases the workload on the farmer. Boviferm Plus contains substances for correcting acidosis that do not interfere with milk clotting and absorption in the sick calf. Therefore, when feeding a Boviferm Plus solution with milk, the Calf can still utilise the latter for energy and repair.

Other electrolytes that contain bicarbonate as the base should not be fed with milk and the farmer should only feed these electrolytes at least two hours after milk feeding. This is because the bicarbonate present will prevent rennin forming a milk clot. The formation of a milk clot is necessary for milk digestion in the calf.

The scouring calf should also be isolated and may require an additional heat source such as an infra-red lamp to maintain heat balance. If the animal becomes depressed, recumbent or visibly dehydrated then veterinary assistance should be sought immediately.

The vet may administer intravenous medication to aid the calf’s recovery. The diagnosis of the causal agent can be based on clinical signs, age of affected animals and recent history on farm. Faecal testing can be done either using on farm strip type testing for immediate results or faeces can be sent away for more accurate Laboratory testing.

Commonly, the causal agent will remain undiagnosed and infection can be due to a combination of the above listed microbes. Regardless of the microbe involved, the vet may prescribe antibiotics to fight infection. There is a requirement for greater awareness of antibiotic resistance and the vet must always be involved in selection of a suitable antibiotic.

Bimeda’s Bimamix is formulated and indicated for use when prescribed in cases of scour.

Bimamix contains a trio of ingredients that are widely used in the treatment of this disease. These ingredients are Neomycin 25mg/ml (antibiotic), Sulfadiazine 150mg/ml (antibiotic) and Kaolin 105mg/ml (astringent).

Neomycin is a member of the Aminoglycoside antibiotics, which is particularly effective against Gram negative bacteria like E.coli and Salmonella. It is a bactericidal antibiotic which causes the death of the bacterial cell. Neomycin is ideally suited as an antibiotic treatment as it is poorly absorbed from the intestine, allowing its effects to be concentrated within the intestine.

Sulfadiazine is a potent member of the Sulphonamide antibiotic family. It works in a different manner to Neomycin as it is a bacteriostat and prevents bacterial replication, facilitating the animal’s immune system’s destruction of the bacteria. Sulfadiazine is effective against bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella.

Kaolin has been used widely in veterinary and human medicine as an astringent and adsorbent for many years. It adheres to the lining of the intestine, can inhibit gut secretions and may slow intestinal transit of the faecal stool.

With good husbandry the chances of scour outbreaks occurring can be reduced. When they do occur appropriate and timely treatment can limit the damage done by these outbreaks.

For more information on Bimeda’s wide range of products please consult your nearest stockist.