Sector Ruminants

The key to protecting against diarrhea and raising calves with strong intestinal health

Intestinal health is a key factor during the rearing of calves. In a cause-and-effect cycle, calves need both digestible nutrients and a healthy intestine to absorb the nutrients. Any disturbance in the function of the intestine will have a direct negative impact on the growth rates that calves can achieve. Diarrhea, due to intestinal problems, is the main cause of mortality and morbidity during the first 5 weeks of life and has several causes. On top of the immediate impact, research shows growth depressions from scours in early life will have a negative impact on the production potential of the animal as a full-grown dairy cow.

The intestinal health of a newborn calf starts with proper colostrum management and feeding. The entire digestive tract, including the intestine, is a semi-permeable barrier between the calf and its environment. Colostrum, the first nutrition the calf receives, plays a vital role in starting intestinal development and the formation of a healthy microbiome. In a young calf, the digestive tract faces a multitude of challenges during early life like infections, malnutrition, environmental stress, etc. Studies have shown added value in feeding colostrum for multiple days after birth to support the formation of the intestine. Properly developing the intestine will enable the calf to maximize nutrient absorption and prevent any intrusion of unwanted components into its metabolism.

Understanding diarrhea

In commercial practice, diarrhea is the main visible outcome of intestinal problems. We talk about diarrhea in cases where the frequency, fluidity, or volume of fecal excretion is increased. There are several ways that diarrhea can occur:


Due to increased osmotic pressure in the intestine, water will be drawn from the calf’s body into the intestine to balance the osmotic pressure to a normal level. The increased osmotic pressure is mostly caused by undigested feed reaching the large intestine where it may be fermented.


If the intestine is damaged, nutrient absorption will be reduced, raising the flow of nutrients through the digestive system and increasing the osmotic pressure. Damage can occur by several organisms e.g., coccidia or clostridia.


Several organisms can produce toxins and the animal will try to flush these toxins out by moving large amounts of water from the body into the intestine.


Increased motility of the intestine means that feed will move faster through the intestinal tract.

Handling diarrhea

Simply observing diarrhea in a calf will not provide a clear picture of the cause, further investigation is necessary to clarify treatment needs. Next to collecting and testing manure, taking the temperature of a sickly calf is the first step next to finding out if there is an infection causing diarrhea. Fast action is necessary as diarrhea has a negative impact on gut morphology and hinders further development of the intestine, slowing calf development.

Diarrhea results in a loss of fluids, therefore, dehydration is the main problem for calves with diarrhea. So, increasing the intake of liquids is key in the treatment of calves with diarrhea. Research shows that calves receiving a good rehydration solution, next to milk, perform much better. The calves with combined milk and oral rehydration continued growing, without any negative impact after recovering from diarrhea.

Table 1: Dietary treatments
Source: Journal of Dairy Science Vol 77, No 3, 1994

Calves that receive no milk during the first two days lost body weight for the first 3 days of the treatment in comparison to combined feeding of a rehydration solution with different volumes of milk.

Figure 1: Body weight versus day of therapy for calves given treatments 1 ( ), 2 ( ) and 3 ( ). The overall effect of treatment (P=0.08) was not significant. The effect of day (P<0.001) and the treatment by day interaction (P=0.0002) were significant. The standard error of the difference (9) between any two treatment by day mean = 2.8.
Source: Journal of Dairy Science Vol. 77, No.3 1994

Intestinal health is key in rearing calves

Prevention of digestive disorders should be the base of every calf rearing system. To do this, a multifactorial approach of daily calf rearing routines is necessary, routines that cover:

  • Nutrition
  • Housing
  • Hygiene
  • General health care

In many cases, digestive disorders are secondary problems caused by a disturbed microbiome in the intestine. When the healthy balance is disrupted, naturally occurring pathogens have an opportunity to overgrow the intestine and cause diarrhea. Another major concern of a disturbed intestine is the resulting flow of undigested nutrients, especially elevated levels of protein. So, all feeds for young calves should have highly digestible protein sources at a level fitting to the requirements of the calf. Next to digestive protein, the energy sources should also be highly digestible.

Since one of the main measurements of health—next to daily gain—is the development of the intestinal system, the key to supporting a healthy microbiome during the milk intake period and through transition is providing a high-quality milk replacer and calf starter. Within the Earlyfeed concept, are a number of high-quality milk replacers and calf starters. All products contain the START+ concept with active components such as prebiotic fiber, probiotics, antioxidants, and organic selenium. This concept is specially designed to give calves a smooth head start in life by promoting the maturation of the underdeveloped intestinal tract of newborn calves. This helps contribute to a healthy calf right from the start.

Prevention should always be the first target when discussing intestinal health issues. However, in cases of diarrhea, quick action is needed. First, restore the liquids a calf is losing as soon as possible and then take away the cause of the intestinal dysfunction. To restore liquids, Vitalife Calf, included in the Earlyfeed portfolio, is an oral rehydrating agent directly providing absorbable sources of energy to the calf. It also restores the disrupted electrolyte balance. By supplying extra electrolytes at the level of the small intestine, Vitalife Calf supports the immunity of the young calves facing intestinal health issues that, in turn, cause diarrhea and dehydration . Intestinal health is key in rearing calves. Prevention of digestive issues should be fundamental to any calf-rearing decision that is made. In case prevention fails, make sure there is a proper treatment plan in place to get calves back on track and healthy again with minimal damage to their performance and future development.

Consult your veterinarian to discuss medical treatment options to both prevent and treat scours.

Your Earlyfeed expert
Harrie van der Vliet
Product Manager Ruminants

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