It’s not until you end up trying to save scouring calves from death row that you realise what a risk buying calves can be. But many small farmers need to purchase calves for rearing to make money, as well as to suckle cows that have too much milk for their own calves.

It’s this latter case that can be most heartbreaking as you may have farmed for years with healthy animals that have never had an attack of scours. Then you buy in a calf and at the time don’t realise that it’s infected with the scours, and the disease goes through your whole calf population – causing mayhem and death on the way.

You could kick yourself, especially the calf supplier. But sadly it’s “buyer beware” and you stand all the costs, veterinary, financial and emotional.

Basically, calf scours are either nutritional (too much liquid intake) or disease. If nutritional, when you reduce the milk intake, the scour should reduce or stop. Under disease, the cause is either bacterial or viral. Bacterial scours you can fix with antibiotics but if you get the virus kind, then antibiotics won’t work.

And it seems as if viral scours (especially rotovirus) have become more common in recent years, and once they get onto your property and into your sheds, it takes an enormous effort to achieve a clean-up. The viruses are usually killed by sunlight when exposed but if hidden inside cells can lie dormant for a very long time.

Viral scours spread fast. There have been cases known of visitors carrying the disease, so keep calf-rearing visitors away from your calves or make them disinfect their footwear and wear paper overall as you can spread the bugs on your clothes too. You certainly would not get near any calf operation overseas without these measures so why not here in the future.

You just don’t know where these viruses are. Even if you disinfect an infected calf shed, there’s always doubt if you got the last virus.

If you get it confirmed that it is virus scours on your property, then talk to your vet about a vaccination programme for next season, and make sure after calf rearing is over, that you have a complete clean-up and disinfection, again seeking veterinary advice as to what products to use.

Checklist for when buying calves:

  • Go and see the calves at the farm before purchase. If they look weak and droopy, don’t take them. Don’t just accept what is sent to you.
  • If there are a lot of scours around the yard or calf pens, don’t buy anything from there and disinfect your boots and change your overalls as soon as you get home.
  • Check the purchased calf has had a MINIMUM of 2 litres of colostrum from its mother before 6 hours after birth. Tell the vendor that you will do a test for antibodies if the calf becomes sick soon after purchase and if low antibodies are confirmed, you will want your money back. And that will be the last calf you'll buy from him/her and you’ll warm all your friends.
  • Give the calf a warm, quiet journey home and feed it electrolytes on arrival, then warm milk the next day. Don’t overload its stomach.
  • Put the calf into a quarantine area for at least 24 hours to see if it develops any kind of scour problems.
  • Then at least you have not contaminated your others.
  • Avoid buying calves in saleyards where they have mixed with others.
  • Check that any calves you buy have a healthy-looking dried-up navel with no swelling in the inside. All mucous membranes should look pink and healthy.
  • Check calves can stand OK, their joints look normal and they can walk freely.
  • Be prepared for scours and ask your vet what to keep in stock for immediate action. Electrolyte to counter dehydration is the key to saving animals.
  • Learn to recognise a sick calf in the early stages of problems. Dull eyes, ears starting to droop, lying down, listless, not feeding, and the start of scouring.
  • Act immediately and never delay treatment.

There are so many questions to which there is no one correct answer, as it depends on each individual situation.

For example – in wet cold muddy conditions, do you bring calves into the shed and risk them picking up bugs, or leave them out with their dam in the wet weather on what should be uncontaminated pasture?

If the cow has too much milk, do you bring her in to milk her out, buy an extra calf or two to use the milk, or ignore the massive udder and let the calf take what it wants and just keep checking her occasionally for mastitis?

Discuss these problems with your veterinarian.