Scours are NOT normal

It is possible on a commercial dairy farm to have a treatable scours rate less than one percent.

When greeting a calfcare person on a farm I always ask, “How are the calves doing?” I hear about the ones that are doing well and ones that are doing poorly. That’s life.

I get suspicious, however, when I hear about quite a few scouring calves and the person adds, “But, that’s normal.”

What is the person telling me about the situation today? That twenty percent of the calves with scours is the usual state of health? Or, is the person telling me that this situation is “just the way life is expected to be. It can’t be changed.” Or, both?

What’s Normal?

Biologically, something has to go wrong for a calf to have scours or diarrhea. Calves living primarily on either milk or milk replacer should have a normal stool. We expect it to be yellowish in color and relatively firm. Symptoms of diarrhea are changes in color and consistency from that standard.

But, in an imperfect world lots of things can go wrong. Calves are exposed to an excessive number of pathogens. Calves receive too few defenses from their dams’ colostrum against pathogens. They have scours.

What’s “normal?” The answer is not found in biology. We set the standard for “normal” ourselves. It is possible on a commercial dairy farm to have a treatable scours rate less than one percent. Unfortunately, a few farms have treatable scours in nearly all their calves. Which situation is “normal?”

Scours: Inevitable or preventable?

To what extent do we believe that calf health can be managed? Are we convinced that the rate of treatable scours is a result of how we care for calves? Or, are calf scours inevitable and they just can’t be prevented?

Nearly all cases of scours or diarrhea are caused by an infection. Excessive numbers of pathogens have found their way into the calf’s body. She does not have enough immune defenses to fight them off. The resulting infection disrupts the normal functioning of the digestive system. One part of abnormal functioning is diarrhea.

The question above could be, “Are intestinal infections inevitable or can they be prevented?” Not believing they are inevitable I prefer to ask, “What rate of intestinal infections can I endure among my calves?”

Remember that the two factors involved, pathogen exposure and immune system strength, are subject to a large extent to human control. We chose how well we will manage them. On one hand, if we spend too little time and money to decrease exposure to “bugs” the chances of calf scours go up. If we spend too little time and money to increase the strength of immune systems the chances of scours go up.

On the other hand, it’s possible to set one’s goals too high. Spending an unreasonable amount of time and money to reduce pathogen exposure and increase immune system strength won’t eliminate every single case of calf scours.

What’s the right goal for my farm?

The circumstances are different for every farm. Cash and labor are often in high demand and not enough of them to go around is a common situation. However, there are very few dairies where dead and sick calves are profitable. Fewer cases of scours are always more desirable.

How to set a goal or standard? One way is to compare the scours rate on your farm at two points in time. What rate do I have now? Can I decrease it by ten or twenty percent in the next three months? A few farms actually do keep records of treatable scours cases. Another way to keep track if you use commercial electrolytes to treat scours is to track the purchase of these supplies. Just one caution in doing this comparison. There is a lot of seasonal variation in scours rates. If you make quarterly or longer comparisons be certain to compare electrolyte use in the same season of the year.

Another way to set a goal is to compare your calf enterprise with others in the dairy industry. There is a lack of reliable information about treatable scours rates. An informed guess is that most dairy farms in the Northeastern U.S. treat scours in about fifteen to twenty percent of their calves. Your goal could be to be treating fewer calves than that.

Finally, knowing that scours is the cause of death for one-half of all the preweaned calves that die in the U.S. you can decide this is serious business and set an arbitrary goal. Pick a low number and shoot for it. Ten percent. Five percent. Go for it!

For Your Information

At Jim Quigley’s web site,, there are three Calf Notes of special interest on scours:

No. 21 Feeding Scouring Calves

No. 42 What are Scours?

No. 43 Electrolytes for Scouring Calves

Related Links:


Cattle FACS: Calf Scours Overview, General Principles


Sam Leadley

Sam Leadley
62 articles

Consultant on Calf/Heifer Management at Attica Veterinary Associates.

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Attica Veterinary Associates

Attica Veterinary Associates

Attica Veterinary Associates provide veterinary services and products, independent consultation in dairy management, nutrition and performance, and trainings.

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