Will feeding silage to lactating cows give calves scours?

With ongoing shortages of distillers grains, cow/calf producers consider substituting corn silage, but concerns expressed that silage may lead to calf scours.

May 15, 2020

3 Min Read
U Nebraska calf scours.jpg
There are a variety of reasons a calf might have a very loose stool and not all of them are cause for concern.Photo credit Troy Walz.

Many cow/calf producers have become accustomed to using distillers grains as a source of both protein and energy to help meet the nutritional needs of lactating cows from calving until green grass is available, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.

Due to the ongoing shortage of distillers grains, many producers are considering including corn silage in the ration to help alleviate some of the energy shortfall in their hay resources. However, concerns have been expressed that silage in the diet will result in diarrhea or scours in their calves, the university's beef cattle production team said in a "Panhandle Perspectives" post.

While this is a critical time for the nursing calf, and producers should be ever vigilant for signs of scours, there are actually a variety of reasons a calf might have a very loose stool, and not all of them are cause for concern.

Feeding a diet that is highly digestible and fermented, with a high rate of passage through the digestive system, will result in manure that is much more wet and loose than manure from a diet of dry hay and supplemental distillers grains, the university said. In dairy cows, a high-energy diet has been shown to increase milk production earlier in lactation, and a similar response is likely in beef cows. Increased milk production early in the calf’s life will also likely result in a looser stool.

Additionally, calves begin to nibble at grass and their mother’s feed within a few days of life and, by one month of age, are eating 1% of their bodyweight on a dry matter basis in feed other than milk. Therefore, they will begin to consume a diet that is responsible for a looser stool just like the cow does. However, dietary-related scours do not cause illness and dehydration in the calf, the beef specialists said.

The health- and life-threatening causes of diarrhea in calves are commonly from a list of infectious pathogens that are shed at low levels by individuals in virtually any group of bovines. Most are viral or protozoal, and some are bacterial. These pathogens are picked up by calves, amplified and shed at much higher levels into the environment, mainly in feces. Calves born later in the calving season are often born into environments that have much higher levels of these pathogens present than the earliest calves experienced, and as a result, the later-born calves are at higher risk of getting sick, the specialists said.

One method many producers in Nebraska have been implementing successfully for years to break this chain of transmission is called "Sandhills calving," which involves keeping together cow/calf pairs with only calves born in the same one- to two-week period until the youngest calves are at least a month old. This prevents amplification of pathogens from continuing to accelerate and provides a fresh start for each one- to two-week cohort of calves.

When cow/calf pairs are in pens in the spring, the calves need a clean, dry place to lie down. Usually, this needs to be somewhere the cows cannot get into. It also needs to be out of the wind. Shelter can be beneficial if the ventilation is adequate.

The best way to judge whether a calf with a loose stool needs treatment is by its attitude and appetite, the beef specialists said. If it is bright, alert, active and interested in eating, it is likely doing alright. If the calf is listless, moving slowly, ears are drooping and does not appear to be interested in eating or nursing, treatment is likely needed. One exception to that would be if there was blood in the feces. That should be treated quickly.

Fluid replacement is the cornerstone of treatment for scours, though antibiotics may also be necessary in certain situations. A calf that can stand may respond well to treatment with oral electrolytes, but a calf with diarrhea that won’t or can’t stand is very likely in dire need of intravenous fluid therapy. A veterinarian can help develop a plan for treating scours in calves if the need arises.

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