Be clean, be proactive and know how to identify and handle calves at risk of developing Escherichia coli (E. coli) scours — that’s the advice Dr. Twig Marston, Kansas State University beef cattle specialist, offers to cow/calf producers as scour season approaches.

E. coli scours is the major cause of death and sickness in newborn calves. And calves that do survive can continue to cost producers profits long after treatment.

“If you match up scours incidence with weaning weights, we often see that there is a difference of at least 20 pounds between calves that had scours and other calves in the same group that never had the disease,” Marston says. “Those calves will recover and gain, but the cow/calf producer will take a hit in treatment costs and reduced weaning weight.”

Marston says producers should have a two-fold defense against scours: a prevention program and a therapeutic program for quick treatment of sick calves. For prevention, he says vaccination and sanitation are the first steps. The goal is to increase resistance and lower the challenge to calves. Producers should vaccinate bred cows for E. coli and other scour-causing pathogens at 60 and 30 days before calving.

“First-calf and 2-year-old heifers should always be candidates for a scours vaccination program,” Marston advises. “They have the lowest quantity and quality colostrum and the highest incidence of dystocia, or calving difficulty, which puts their calves at higher risk for developing an infection. Stress always increases risk.”

Other preventive strategies include reducing stressors, such as overcrowding and poor nutrition; increasing environmental sanitation; and maximizing colostrum intake.

“The rule of thumb for colostrum intake is that calves should get 10% of their body weight within 24 hours. If the calf has to be pulled, that increases stress and scour risk, so producers should try to get colostrum into the calf within four hours,” Marston says.

For sanitation, Marston notes that producers should try to keep calves on clean ground or bedding.

“Cattle should be kept away from congestion and mud as much as possible,” Marston explains. “Ideal calving grounds have been free of cattle for several weeks. Segregating calves by calving groups also helps, along with moving cows that haven’t calved to clean pastures so newborn calves are exposed to the least disease challenge.”

If prevention methods fail and a calf is showing signs of E. coli scours, treatment can be effective but requires multiple types of therapy.

“The loss of water and electrolytes the calf has experienced can be treated with fluid therapy, such as an oral electrolyte solution,” says Dr. Tom Van Dyke, Manager, Merial Veterinary Professional Services. “The sick calf should be given 2 liters of fluid one to three times a day.”

He adds that an antibiotic also should be given to the calf, even though antibiotics do not kill many of the agents that cause calf scours.

“The bacteria will leak into the blood stream because of the damage to the calf’s digestive system, so an antibiotic is still of value, as it can help lessen the effect of secondary signs of infection,” Dr. Van Dyke says. “A good antibiotic option for treatment is a broad-spectrum, long-lasting oxytetracycline.”