Calf diarrhea is a symptom of a variety of gastrointestinal illnesses in young calves with many different causes: bacteria, viruses, parasites, and food toxins among others. Those gastrointestinal illnesses are commonly referred to as “scours”. Most often scours is a problem in the first month of life.
Bacteria like salmonella and E.coli, viruses like rotavirus (most common), and internal parasites like coccidia, cause gastrointestinal illnesses that bring on diarrhea. The infectious agent may produce toxins in the gut or damage the lining of the gut, or both. Formation of diarrhea then draws large amounts of body fluid into the gut lumen. The calf quickly becomes dehydrated, electrolytes are unbalanced, and energy reserves become depleted. Untreated diarrhea increases the likelihood of respiratory disease, which can be fatal. Younger calves have the greatest chance of death.
The morbidity and mortality resulting from calf diarrhea are well documented (see, for instance, the NAHMS Dairy 2007 Study). In recent years, researchers have also been able to show that calf diarrhea significantly impacts the future health and productivity of the calf, heifer and adult cow (Van Amburgh 2012). Calves that have serious episodes of diarrhea are affected for the rest of their lives, and diarrhea therefore needs to be taken seriously by calf ranchers and producers.
Major Causes of Diarrhea During the First 60 Days of Life
As noted earlier, diarrhea is symptomatic of gastrointestinal illness caused by many bacteria, viruses, parasites, or food toxins, etc. The figure to the left shows how the major diarrhea-causing micro-organisms may infect calves over the typical 60-day weaning period. E. Coli and rotavirus are the most likely pathogenic causes of diarrhea in neonatal (< 10 days) calves. Regardless of the cause, which is often not easy to determine, action should be taken, especially if there is an outbreak across the herd.
In the US, there are geographical differences in the causes of diarrhea, and there are also differences in the causes between large and small farms within the same region. For instance, Salmonella outbreaks occur frequently on large dairy farms in warm climates.
Calf diarrhea is obvious, but slow-nursing calves without diarrhea are often on the verge of scouring. Attention to those slow-nursing calves can prevent, or at least reduce, the severity of diarrhea should it appear. Your veterinarian can run diagnostic tests to determine the causative agent, and that information will help you and your veterinarian decide on the best course of treatment.
There are several different types of diarrhea. Secretory, malabsorption, and inflammatory diarrhea are the major types. Almost all diarrheas have a secretory component to them, just where Neonorm Calf is most helpful. Diarrhea from a pathogen, such as coccidian, which destroys the epithelial cells lining the gut, is a condition where Neonorm Calf will not help and in which other rigorous action is required.
The severity of a case of diarrhea may be scored using the University of Wisconsin Calf Scoring System. This information will be helpful to your veterinarian if they cannot be present at the farm, and will also help you gauge the need for action and the effect of any intervention.
Over the long run, prevention is the best and least expensive treatment for any early calfhood condition, especially scours. The extra work and other losses caused by scours can be prevented through good management practices. At the herd level, these include:
- Cleanliness of the equipment, housing and facilities
- Good personnel hygiene
- Proper training of personnel
Equally important is our attitude towards calf diarrhea. Historically, diarrhea has not been regarded as a big deal. Many producers do not record diarrhea events and/or the administration of electrolytes. Keeping track of this data will help keep the condition in mind and likely lead to a better understanding of its prevention, treatment, and long term consequences.
Reducing Fluid Loss from Calf Diarrhea
In July 2014, Jaguar sponsored a Dairy Calf Round Table in Kansas City. At the meeting, Rodrigo Bicalho, DVM PhD, Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, stated, “The more we study this symptom [diarrhea] the more we understand it is complex, multifactorial, and hard to prevent. But regardless of its cause, reducing the dehydration associated with diarrhea is key.” A corollary statement might be that early intervention with Neonorm Calf is good practice.
Because diarrhea is symptomatic of underlying gastrointestinal illness, limiting the fluid loss caused by diarrhea sooner allows the calf to recover more quickly from the underlying cause. Relieving the physiological stress of dehydration from diarrhea allows the calf to deploy more of its energy reserves toward fighting the underlying cause, and gives the calf’s natural immunity and other interventions more time to work.
Neonorm Calf helps calves avoid debilitating, dangerous levels of dehydration. The product works by inhibiting water loss from the calf’s circulatory system into the intestines. Neonorm Calf is not an electrolyte, but an advanced product designed to function at the cellular level. The product may be used alongside electrolytes as supportive care.
The Economic Impact
Practical experience and research are now revealing that healthy calves make healthier, happier, and more productive cows. The economic effects—including unnecessary early deaths and delayed weaning—are far reaching. Persistent diarrhea on the farm has significant negative effects not only on the herd, but also on employees. So, do the economics matter? Leading producers certainly pay close attention to economic losses resulting from calf diarrhea.
NAHMS (National Animal Health Monitoring Service). 2007. Dairy 2007. Heifer calf health and management practices on U.S. dairy operations. USDA-APHIS-VS. Accessed Mar. 23, 2011.
Soberon, F., Raffrenato, E., Everett, RW. andVan Amburgh, ME. 2012. Preweaning milk replacer intake and effects on long term productivity of dairy calves. J. Dairy Sci. 95: 783-793.
UW Calf Health Scoring Chart