Social distancing works in livestock, too

The risk coronavirus and other pathogens that can cause scours in calves can be mitigated by separating calves from the rest of the herd.

Separating newborn calves from the rest of the herd helps ensure that they will remain healthy. Forum News Service file photo

Cattle producers are all too familiar with scours, or calf diarrhea — one of the causes of which is coronavirus. Now, that experience can shed light on human response to the coronavirus pandemic, an Extension Service veterinarian said.

"There are similarities between scours and coronavirus in humans," said Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and associate professor of livestock stewardship.

He emphasized he's optimistic the pandemic will be resolved successfully.

Scours — the leading cause of death among calves 2 to 30 days old — breaks down cells in the lining of the small intestine and can lead to diarrhea and dehydration. Calves are roughly 70% water at birth, so dehydration is a major concern. Adding to the danger is the loss of essential body chemicals associated with dehydration.


Coronavirus vaccine for cattle has been awhile for years, but it is not for the same strain of the virus affecting humans. (Supplied photo)

Coronavirus and other pathogens that can cause scours are carried by healthy-appearing cows and heifers (young female cows that haven't yet had a calf) and deposited into the environment in manure. Barns and other areas where animals are in close proximity are at particular risk. So whenever possible, healthy calves and pregnant cows should be moved away from areas where scours has developed and other calves are afflicted with it.

'It's so important to move (healthy animals) to clean ground and isolate them," similar to the social distancing recommended for humans in the coronavirus pandemic, Stokka said.

Isolating healthy cattle can be difficult, especially when a producer has limited indoor space and the weather outside doesn't cooperate — just as social distancing can be difficult in humans, he said.

A vaccine against scours in calves already is commercially available, though vaccination should be only one component of an anti-scours effort. Isolating healthy calves and pregnant cows is another key aspect of that effort, experts say.

It's unclear when a vaccine for coronavirus in humans might become available. According to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine website: "While some institutions have reported they have a vaccine, and the first human study has started in Seattle, currently no researchers have published studies showing a coronavirus vaccine that is safe and effective in humans."

Stokka, a rancher himself who once served served as a member of the Pfizer Animal Health veterinary operations team, said he's confident a vaccine for humans will be found.

He's also confident that agriculturalists and the country in general will work their way through the pandemic.

"We're going to get through this," he said.

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