Calves, like humans, are made up mostly of water. Because of this, calves can experience an increased risk of death once dehydration sets in. Establishing a feeding program that includes electrolytes can be a health- saving measure for your calves.
Calves lose so much water and electrolytes by trying to stay cool through respiration (panting) and sweating that they drink more than one might think.
Electrolytes are used to replace lost fluids, restore the acid-base balance, and provide nutrients and energy to the calf. Not only can they address dehydration caused by extreme temperatures, but they can also be a useful tool to combat dehydration that might occur during weaning, moving and other stress factors.
Although there are many brands of electrolytes on the market, it is important to select one that is high quality yet economical and meets the individual needs of your feeding program. A two-part system is the most economical way to deliver electrolytes. This includes a base for prevention and a base plus add pack, or a complete product when dehydration is more prevalent. Packaging adds substantial cost to electrolytes so large packages, such as foil lined and heat sealed 25 pound bags, can decrease cost somewhat.
Look for a product that contains sodium, alkalizing agents (bicarbonate, sodium citrate, sodium acetate or a combination), potassium, chloride, glycine and dextrose or glucose. These various salts and compounds have an important role in restoring the acid-base balance to the calf and providing nutrients and energy needed.
According to recommendations from the University of Wisconsin Veterinary School, milk or milk replacer feeding should be continued when calves scour as both the liquid and nutrients are needed from the normal diet. Electrolyte formulations when fed alone do not contain enough nutrients to support maintenance and gain, especially in the face of a disease challenge. Nutrients derived from milk or milk replacer are important to allow the calf to overcome the challenge. According to Penn State Extension, calves can lose 5 to 10 percent of their body weight in water within one day of scouring.
To evaluate a calf’s level of dehydration, pick up their skin over the shoulder and observe the time it takes to return to normal. A properly hydrated calf’s skin will return to normal right away (less than 2 seconds), while a dehydrated calf’s skin will remain tented or sticking up for a short period. If skin takes 2 to 6 seconds to flatten, the calf is about 8 percent dehydrated. More than 6 seconds indicates severe dehydration above 10 percent.
Other dehydration symptoms to look for include depression, sunken in eyes, cold limbs, white and dry gums, and lack of ability to stand or drink.
To prevent these levels of dehydration feed an electrolyte solution during every other water feeding or offer it free choice along with water to calves. Consistent replenishment of electrolytes is key to ensuring calves remain hydrated and healthy. Never add electrolyte powder to milk, always mix in water and feed since the water is every bit as important as the compounds found in the electrolyte powder.
Feeding electrolytes has many benefits, but those benefits only complement a high-quality calf feeding program. In addition to electrolytes, a proper feeding program should consist of water, colostrum, milk replacer and a calf starter/grower. During warm temperatures use a milk replacer specifically formulated for warm weather. Providing calves with an adequate plane of nutrition will allow them better fight disease challenges and to store body reserves and use them if they are stressed due to heat or for other reasons.