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There are numerous causes of disease and death in nursing beef calves. Within the first several days of life, the leading causes of beef calf disease are metabolic and behavioral problems, many of which are the direct or indirect result of dystocia. Thereafter, the most common calfhood problems are infectious diseases. Infections of the respiratory and gastrointestinal system account for the overwhelming majority of calf disease and death in the United States. Gastrointestinal diseases tend to be most common within the first month of life, while the respiratory diseases tend to be more important after that time.
There are numerous causes of gastrointestinal infection in calves and is very important to distinguish between them, because they can have very different modes of prevention and treatment. Calf scours is the most common type of gastrointestinal infection. Scours is caused by microbes that affect the lining cells of the gut but do not invade further into the body. These agents cause disease and death by increasing fluid and electrolyte losses via diarrhea. Affected calves can routinely be saved if treatment includes sufficient fluid and electrolyte to counterbalance the diarrheic losses.
A considerable amount of research effort has been directed toward understanding, treating and preventing calf scours. Although our best attempts at prevention cannot eliminate calf scours, we have numerous methods of limiting the disease. Importantly, we have very effective means for limiting calf death when the disease does occur. Most of the treatment and prevention methods are readily available to the cow/calf producer.